Dr. John E. Miller died today at age 75.
Dr. Miller was a longtime professor of history at South Dakota State University, and during my time at SDSU, he was my history advisor.
“John Miller” is an unassuming name, and John himself could have also been called unassuming. He was not flashy. Unlike some professors, he always made the focus of his courses the material, and not himself. I never knew him to draw attention to himself.
John was a native of Missouri – a fan of Harry Truman and the St. Louis Cardinals. One of his books was about small-town midwestern boys like Truman: Small-Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America. In that book, he wrote about midwesterners such as Ronald Reagan, Henry Ford, John Wooden, and Sam Walton. It was easy to see why John profiled men like these – it was who he was.
John studied at the University of Wisconsin, where he wrote his thesis on the LaFollettes. Like the LaFollettes, he considered himself an old time “progressive.” In modern parlance, he was probably a “liberal Democrat,” certainly for South Dakota, but he didn’t use his courses or his scholarship to advance his personal political views.
I didn’t get my love of history from John; I had that long before I came from SDSU. But I appreciated John because he showed that there was always room to write history – important history – about one’s home. John had long ago adopted South Dakota as his home, and he was out of our state’s outstanding historians. I personally valued his book, Looking for History on Highway 14. My mom grew up near De Smet. My dad grew up in Wasta, Quinn and Wall. I went to college in Brookings, got my first job in politics in Rapid City, and spent years in Pierre at the state capitol. All on Highway 14.
John was a giant of South Dakota history. He updated and revised Herbert Schell’s classic History of South Dakota. In partnership with Jon Lauck, he was leading the charge to revitalize political history, editing three volumes (so far) of Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture (vol 1, vol 2, vol 3). I was honored to have an article included in Volume 2 on the history of SD Governors. (Lauck also shared his memories of John Miller here.)
And John was a leading scholar of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was another connection between us. My grandpa spend decades as the treasurer of the Laura Ingalls Wilder foundation and my mom and aunt both worked as tour guides at the Surveyor’s Shanty in De Smet (after he retired from the farm, Grandpa lived next door). As a kid, our visits to Grandpa Poppen in De Smet were often also visits to the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites. John appreciated Laura; he understood what she meant to our state and how she told the story of the tough, brave, hardy people who came to Dakota and made it their home. He defended her against the revisionists who tried to make her into something she was not.
At the time of John’s passing, he had important projects in line, including a major history of George McGovern – as an small-town boy and old-time progressive in South Dakota, there was no one better to write about McGovern than John. That he will never complete this work is a true loss.
So now, a man who did so much to expand our knowledge of history has passed into history himself. I for one will always carry John Miller with me and I know many others will too. I hope that his legacy will be to inspire others to learn from our history, and to know that history doesn’t always need to be the great events that occurred in Washington, or London, or Athens. History can be found here at home.
Post script: John’s obituary has been posted. On of the great tragedies of our current state of affairs is that we have lost the ability to gather together to remember those we have lost, at least for now; a memorial will be held at a later time.
I would also recommend a nice remembrance of John by John Andrews, another of his students who writes for South Dakota Magazine and is also doing much to advance the study of South Dakota history.