Jon Lauck remembers John Miller

Jon Lauck wrote the following and posted it on his Facebook page. With his permission I am posting it here as well. Lauck has done much, and I am sure will continue to do much, to carry forward Miller’s work to promote the study of South Dakota history. I shared my own memories of John Miller here.

Screen Shot 2020-05-02 at 12.22.30 PMIf you haven’t heard the sad news, the historian John E. Miller passed away in Brookings yesterday of a heart attack. He taught at SDSU for 30 years, explaining the contours of American history to thousands of young South Dakotans over the years. He was passionate about history, books, writing, scholarship, libraries, academic conferences, and the intellectual world and he was a strong family man, a lover of baseball, and a decent and genuine person who cared for others and wanted to help them be better people. I mention this combination because it can be rare (some intellectuals are kind of jerks). John was a great writer and thinker and intellectual and a great person both.

Before mentioning John’s scholarship I want to talk about him as a person. I took several classes from him at SDSU from 1989-1993 (Rodney Bell, the classicist, was my advisor, but John and I hit it off from the beginning). He was always enthusiastic about his teaching. I remember him getting down on one knee in his class “America Between the World Wars” and mournfully saying “say it ain’t so, Joe, say it ain’t so,” the famous phrase attributed to Chicago Daily News reporter Charley Owens in reference to baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson’s admission that he cheated in the 1919 World Series, i.e. the Chicago Black Sox scandal. As an undergraduate at SDSU, Miller took some of us history majors to the student history conference at USD, which was the beginning of many conference trips we took together. I think my paper was about Senator Karl Mundt and the Vietnam war. Much of the research for that paper consisted of Miller and I getting up early and driving to Madison, SD to research in the Mundt Archives (he was mapping out the Mundt era for a potential biography of George McGovern—Mundt and McGovern clashed in the famous 1960 South Dakota senate race). After my student days at SDSU we went to lots of conferences together. These conference trips were legendary. Nobody ever stopped talking: the latest books, what books were in the works, what manuscripts had been rejected, what publishers were doing and who was good to work with, academic gossip, sports, why the history profession should do more work on the Midwest, politics, how many books can we buy before our wives lost it, etc. While I liked to stay at the conference hotel so I could have a post-banquet cocktail with my fellow history folks, Miller always insisted on staying in the red light district of whatever town we were in so he could save $15 so he could buy more books at the conference book fair. This is the literal truth. He was a consummate bibliophile. At these conferences, we would always find and engage the academic stars. You see, there does exist a kind of academic aristocracy — there are lords and barons who seem to be above many others. Miller and I would just go chat ‘em up. A couple of years ago, we drove to Lawrence, Kansas for a conference and David Roediger was around (he’s a big deal, trust me) and Miller and I found him and we had a great discussion and a grand time while others were afraid to talk to him (David was great, chatty, engaging). Maybe our biggest caper was bringing the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to SDSU in the 1990s. Somehow I ended up in charge of a speakers bureau and we had the money so brought in Schlesinger, the famous advisor to the Kennedys and also a famed historian. I remember we had a reception at Herb Cheever’s house where Schlesinger drank an official Sturgis motorcycle rally beer. In future years, John went to visit Schlesinger at his apartment in Manhattan to interview him for his planned book on McGovern (Schlesinger, the Kennedys, and McGovern were very tight). Anyway, John loved all of these conferences and bull sessions on history. He lived for it.

In terms of scholarship, we have to talk about how much John did for South Dakota history. Let’s face it, we’re a small state with few historians and not even a Ph.D. program in history. SD might be the only state not to have one. The consequence is that we simply don’t have young MA students and doctoral students doing the basic research needed to tell the story of the state. We also don’t have a university press. SD might also be the only state not to have one of those, but the state historical society press has become much more active on this front in recent years thanks to Nancy Koupal. But many states have BOTH a university press (some have multiple) AND a historical society press and private publishers. So South Dakota is really up against it and this is something John and I talked about for 20 years. Despite these difficult circumstances, John essentially carried the ball for SD history all by himself for decades. He did as much as any one person could possibly do. People loved his course on SD history at SDSU and his articles and books about the state (such as “Looking for History on Highway 14” and his 3 books on Laura Ingalls Wilder). John also added a few chapters to the old Herbert Schell book on SD history (but that was written in the 1950s, or about half-way through our state’s history). In recent months John and I and others have been talking about getting serious about putting together a new history of South Dakota. With the loss of John, this effort has been badly hobbled. John knew more about this topic than anyone else. His knowledge and experience are irreplaceable.

In recent years, on a related front, John and I also worked on trying to get historians to pay more attention to the American Midwest. John grew up in Missouri, Illinois, and Minnesota (his dad was a Lutheran pastor who moved around) so he was dedicated to studying the region and its small towns. I’ll spare you the details, but the field of Midwestern history was in the same shape as South Dakota history, neglected and on life-support. We were part of some wonderful new efforts to get the field revived, including founding the Midwestern History Association in Sioux Falls a few years ago. Again, this movement will dearly miss John’s leadership. I should note that John was awarded the Frederick Jackson Turner Award for Lifetime Achievement in Midwestern History by the MHA in 2016. In terms of John’s scholarship on the Midwest, I really urge you to read his book “Small-Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America” (University Press of Kansas). It is an amazing book which brings together much of his thinking but, alas, did not receive the attention it deserved (it includes great chapters on Johnny Carson, Sam Walton, Walt Disney etc etc).

Because we both thought there needed to be more research and writing on South Dakota and the Midwest, we started working on a series on the political history of South Dakota for the state historical society. It started when I was in my office at SDSU (formerly John’s office) and the New York Times called about a story they were writing and said “how would you describe the political history of South Dakota in a nutshell?” We didn’t have a great answer so we wrote an article on the topic (with Ed Hogan) for the journal South Dakota History and that spun off into a book series. We were frequently discussing volume four in recent weeks and had just chosen the authors for it. The photo here is the two of us at some conference showing off the first 3 volumes. I should add that John loved old-fashioned political history, the kind that Art Schlesinger wrote and the kind that is very rare these days. John’s first book, based on his dissertation at the University of Wisconsin, was about Wisconsin politics during the 1920s and 1930s.

Because John was very interested in small towns and South Dakota history he naturally became very interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder and wrote several books about her. He was disturbed by some of the mistakes in the recent book about Wilder which won a Pulitzer Prize so he wrote an article analyzing the book in a very nice Milleresque way but also, on another level, in a quite devastating way (again, John was very nice about it, but if you read between the lines you can see that he was not happy such major mistakes were made in this prominent book, mistakes that potentially millions of readers won’t know about). This article appeared in the last issue of Middle West Review if you want to read it—I’ll ask the publisher to make this article available online for anyone who wants to read it.

I don’t know what will become of all the projects that John was working on. He just sent me his new book on American democracy. It just arrived days ago—I’m so glad he was able to finish it. He of course was planning to finish his biography of George McGovern too, which would have been amazing I’m sure. His angle was going to be the intellectual history of McGovern, i.e. what he read and how it shaped him (remember, George was a fellow historian and bibliophile). This reminds me of the time that John and I drove over to Mitchell to talk with McGovern and got him out of bed! It was hilarious. George made us coffee in his robe. We made a transcript of the whole interview which I have around here some place. In recent weeks John also told me he planned to write an intellectual history of South Dakota, i.e. a book about the major thinkers of the state (people like Alvin Hansen and Theodore Schultz – these are the kind of people who Miller could teach us about and keep in our memory and without him they will slip away). He had so many projects in mind it’s hard to keep track.

We should all think of ways to honor John and get people thinking and writing about South Dakota and Midwestern history. Perhaps the discussions in recent years about bolstering history teaching in high schools and requiring more history in South Dakota universities would be a good approach. And we simply need to get that new history of South Dakota rolling. More broadly, universities in the Midwest, if they are to properly serve their regions, should begin offering classes on Midwestern history so we all know our roots and history. John would smile down on all these efforts.

Goodbye my friend. Thank you for all you did for me and for the cause of history, for making us all wiser, for your Midwestern humility and virtue, and for leaving behind so many works of history that will help us all for generations. We’re all going to hoist a pint tonight to your great legacy and vow to do better, to be more like John E. Miller, as we pass through this vale of tears on our way to seeing you again.