William F. Miller (center with gray suit and blue shirt) during his induction into The Press Club of Cleveland’s Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008
Just as President Barack Obama was welcoming the release of two American journalists detained in North Korea, The Plain Dealer was saying goodbye to one of its most colorful and buoyant journalists in its 167-year history.
As reported in The Plain Dealer’s Wednesday editions, Bill Miller, who retired from the PD in 2001, suffered a stroke just two weeks ago, and died on Monday at the age of 73.
As if the PD wasn’t confusing enough with so many employees named Bill floating around the newsroom, there were even two Bill Miller’s: W.C. and W.F until the younger W.C went off to the Philadelphia Inquirer sometime in the late 1980’s
Besides being blessed with the gift of gab, Miller let loose an innovative vocabulary, words that usually began with the letter F; as in ``F… this’’ and ``F…that’’ Miller’s speech pattern, though, had such a stylish rhythm -it never sounded like cursing, more like a maestro working his baton.
You couldn’t really say you knew Bill Miller without knowing the pride he took in his German heritage, his love of his family, and affection in better understanding other nationalities, their traditions and customs in an ethnically diverse city.
Miller once greeted a copy editor (with Puerto Rican roots) with a Spanish expression as he passed him in the hallway. The copy editor corrected Miller that he didn’t say the expression quite right. Despite his botched Spanish-you knew his heart was in the right place with his thirst for embracing other cultures.
From my vantage point, Miller showed only one of two facial expressions: either he was doubled over in laughter after sharing one of his many tales, usually holding a toothpick to his mouth—or his face was as red as a cherry bomb as if it was about to go off (usually after fighting with one of his editors), his eyes on fire, like he would flatten you if you didn’t get out his way.
Miller had mountains of friends inside and outside the building, but what I admired most—was that he was never afraid of losing some of those friends when standing up for what he considered a just cause. He was one of the first to lead a crusade against smoking in the newsroom, well before it became fashionable to do so. I once asked him if he was worried about a hostile response from staffers and what they might be saying about his unpopular campaign. Miller told me with that typical bold Bill Miller confidence: ``F…em!’’
I recall attending a Newspaper Guild meeting in the early 1980’s when The PD was on the brink of striking. Miller rose to his feet and tore into management, for among other things, bordering up windows around the newspaper building (in anticipation of a strike) and creating what he referred to as a ``Forte Apache environment’’. I only remember a thunder of applause from guild members following his hearty tirade.
One day while rifling through his old byline clips in the library, I noticed he was a recipient of an award after working on a story with former PD reporter Joe Eszterhas in the 1960’s, a reporter who later rose to fame writing screenplays for ``Basic Instinct’’ and ``Showgirls.’’ So I thought I’d ask Miller about his fond memories of the Hollywood screenwriter.
Big mistake. I felt like I just stepped on a landmine. Turns out, Miller’s memories of the Hollywood bigwig weren’t all that fond as I had imagined; and he proceeded into a 15-to-20 minute fusillade, his face growing redder with every sentence, how Eszterhas was an arrogant unscrupulous reporter with a habit of embellishing quotes from sources. I remember, like it was yesterday, regretting ever asking Miller to go down memory lane about Mr. Eszterhas.
It’s hard to put into words just how big-hearted Miller really was in a profession that never placed a high premium on displaying social graces or concern for the well being of others. I remember W.F. coming into work an hour early one morning, just so he could spend time with a student who was interested in pursuing a career in journalism. Turns out, the student cancelled on Miller, which touched off a few choice words from the grizzly veteran; but, just the same, it goes to show what lengths Miller would go to extend his hand to others anyway he could.
As newspaper editorial staffs grow thinner and thinner during these troubling times, with news space shrinking, while reporting becomes more specialized with computer reporting projects, glitzy graphics, investigative or enterprise pieces and the tyrannical corporate culture engulfing a dying industry—the passing of such a spirited personality like W.F. Miller, and the way he brought so much life to The Plain Dealer newsroom for 40 years- is just another painful reminder that newsrooms just aren’t what they used to be.