Robert Demorest Miller
Robert Demorest Miller devoted most of his life to scientific research and often gave lectures about his work.
On one occasion, he was on his way to a conference where he planned to speak about how he had been unable to figure out a problem in his research despite several attempts.
Standing in the airport, however, the solution came to him. He immediately began writing down ideas on anything he could find.
Mr. Miller died Monday, April 11, 2011, in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 91.
He was born Sept. 25, 1919, in Omaha, Neb., to Merritt Finley and Grace (Ernst) Miller. His father was a former dean at MU.
Growing up in Columbia, Mr. Miller was friends with a young Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, and once filled in for him on a paper route. Years later, Mr. Miller wrote Walton a letter, saying, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I was your first employee.”
“Of course I remember you,” came Walton’s reply. Mr. Miller kept the letter forever.
While attending Hickman High School, he was involved in many organizations, including the Shakespeare society, where he sometimes played female roles. There is a picture of him in a wig in one of his old yearbooks, his daughter, Anne Miller, said.
Mr. Miller graduated from the University of Missouri in 1940 and earned his master’s degree from the University of Nebraska in 1941. He received his Ph.D. in soil physics from Cornell University in 1948.
He married Beulah Wilson Cooper, or “Buty,” on Sept. 6, 1941, in Columbia. They were married for about 56 years until her death in 1997.
He served as an air traffic and air defense controller in the Army Air Corps during World War II, spending time in Japan, Borneo and other places.
The family legend was that Mr. Miller raised the first American flag in Japan, but had to take it down because everyone thought General Douglas MacArthur should be the one to raise it. Anne Miller said he kept that flag for years before donating it to the National World War II Museum in Louisiana.
He later wrote a book about his wartime experiences called "Descent from Niitaka, 1941-45: First Flag over Japan," in which he wrote about what he saw and did, and included love letters he wrote to his wife. It took him about 10 years of writing, editing and tweaking, Anne Miller said, but “it ended up being a really readable book.”
Mr. Miller completed an appointment at the University of California at Berkeley before returning to Cornell in 1952, later becoming a full professor of soil physics. He did a lot of research, especially in frozen soils, and several times gave lectures in Russia about his work.
He often collaborated with his brother, Edward Ernst Miller, in his research.
“They used to call each other up and talk about science-y stuff, and sometimes they’d get inspired,” Anne Miller said.
He also served as assistant to the provost and dean of the faculty at Cornell, where he remained until his retirement in 1987. He was dean of the Faculty Council during a time when there were a lot of protests against the Vietnam War and racial tensions. At one point, students ended up taking over the Student Union, and there was an armed stand-off between conflicting groups of students. Mr. Miller helped negotiate the settlement, and no one was hurt.
According to a family story, while Mr. Miller was in high school he saved up his paper route money to buy a band saw. He loved building things; Anne Miller remembers him spending weekends in the basement of their home listening to baseball on the radio while making cabinets, a spiral staircase and more.
He spent years remodeling his Ithaca, N.Y., home, and was especially proud of the kitchen and all the cabinets he built in it.
Mr. Miller was a participator, Anne Miller said, and just a warm, friendly person.
“He really was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever known, and that’s not just because I’m his daughter,” Melanie Miller, his daughter, said.
Mr. Miller is survived by three daughters, Leslie M. Browne of Mill Valley, Calif., Anne C. Miller of Austin, and Melanie R. Miller of Ithaca, N.Y.; one sister, Elisabeth M. Hanson of Urbana, Ill.; one brother, Daniel Weber Miller of Bloomington, Ind.; one brother-in-law, Sears R. Jayne of Watertown, Mass.; and two granddaughters, Madeline Vuong and Molly R. Archung.
His wife, Beulah “Buty” Wilson Cooper Miller, and a brother, Edward Ernst Miller, died earlier.
Memorial services will be held at 10:30 a.m. on June 18 at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Central and University avenues, Ithaca, N.Y.