Not your average Joe

Communication professor retires after 53 years at John Carroll

By Karly Kovac ’16

Joe Miller ’59, Ph.D., has seen John Carroll University in ways most people will never see it in their lifetime.

Miller during his early days at Carroll

Miller during his early days at Carroll

“He epitomizes John Carroll to me,” says Jackie Schmidt, Ph.D., professor in the Tim Russert Department of Communication and Theatre Arts and a friend of Miller for more than 40 years. “He’s won every kind of award you can earn here. He’s been an administrator and teacher, and he is John Carroll… He has contributed significantly to this campus and left a legacy.”

Miller is unique because he not only worked at the University for 53 years, he also graduated from it. With a career in public speaking noted by being chosen as a peer reviewer for the President’s Executive Exchange program in 1975, along with acting in various positions of authority throughout the University, Miller has worn many hats – and worn them well. He says the characteristic that describes his career at Carroll best is change.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean bad,” he says. “My life has been enriched by the University. The communication department has adjusted to change and is characterized by adjustments and modifications as time passes.”

Starting as only the fifth full-time member of the communication department in 1961, the area of specialized study was new to the University. Now a 10-member department, the study of the field is changing quickly because of advanced technology and the constant adjustment to speaking environments.

Miller and his wife, Helen

Miller and his wife, Helen

“Communication was defined as central to the values and mission of the University,” Miller says. “The Jesuit mission focuses on a series of concepts that have characterized it since its origin. One of those concepts is eloquentia perfecta, which means the ability to present your ideas as effectively as possible in various settings and forms. On that basis, it’s essentially fundamental to what the University and Jesuit education is all about.”

Miller has always been known to challenge himself to stick to the traditional roots of communication and adapt to different mediums. One of his colleagues for more than 20 years, Brent Brossmann, Ph.D., says that when Miller returned to teach in the department after working in administration for many years, he knew about the importance of incorporating the newest advances in technology.

“He wasn’t particularly technologically savvy,” Brossmann says. “There were times when I had to help him with Microsoft Word, Excel, or the other software programs; but one of the things he did instantaneously is when he took over the position for the professional speaking class, he incorporated a high level of technology into that class, so speakers would have to give a speech through different mediums, such as Skype and Mondopad.”

Communication classes have been a part of the core curriculum, as far as Miller has known, for the past 70 years. It’s an essential piece to liberal arts education.

“It’s an area that’s constantly changing,” Miller says. “As I was exposed to knowledge, I was exposed to different ways in which that information could be applied.”

The many hats worn by Joe
• assistant and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences
• acting chair of the physics and philosophy departments
• winner of Distinguished Faculty Award in 1983
• dean of the Graduate School
• coordinator of research

Leading the way
Miller has always been adaptable to change while also acting as a staple for tradition and leadership, spending almost 20 years in university administration and returning to the classroom nine years ago. His credibility as a teacher and administrator has brought him to serve as a peer reviewer for the North Central Association, the accrediting body for the Higher Learning Commission for colleges throughout the Midwest. His talents brought him to Washington, D.C., where he worked in 1975 with the President’s Executive Exchange program, which was sponsored by President Gerald Ford. He was one of 40 people from private organizations throughout the country who were chosen to conduct a yearlong study about the future of private universities. Miller was one of the two people chosen from nonprofit organizations nationwide.

“The president had become concerned about whether there was a role for private higher education, given the increasing costs,” Miller says.

After much data analysis and policy study as a staff member in the educational division, the group determined it would be beneficial for the country to continue to expand and support private higher education. Miller, who had the opportunity to meet President Ford and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, was received formally at a White House Rose Garden ceremony and attended a dinner at the Kennedy Center.

Miller also spent 33 years consulting at public speaking workshops for companies such as BP and Republic Steel with Schmidt. They also co-wrote an article called “The Five Minute Rule.”

What we know about Joe
Faculty and administrator comments about Miller:

“I’d be sitting in my office, and he’d knock and just say, ‘Hey! How ya doing?’ and he’d make sure if your door was open to say hi to you. It’s those kinds of things that make you feel welcome in a department and make you want to stay there and work and give it your best.”
~Jennifer Catellier, assistant communication professor

“He’s a great guy – always pleasant and friendly. He really cared about his students in the classroom and out. I believe, for many years, he was the only public speaking teacher at JCU, which meant every student who attended John Carroll had to have had him as their CO100 teacher. That’s a lot of students.”
~Bob Noll, director of The Carroll News and journalism program

“Cicero once wrote, “Nothing is more lovable than goodness.” With Cicero’s insight in mind, I understand why so many of us love Joe Miller. He’s simply a good man who cares deeply about his students, colleagues, and the John Carroll family. Joe is the heart of the so-called Power Table in the Inn Between. It won’t be quite the same without him at our infamous lunch gatherings. I’ll miss his intelligent questions, his unmistakable laugh, and the joy of his presence.”
~Fr. Don Cozzens, writer-in-residence

“I learned a lot of leadership skills from him as well. We all worked together, but we did so through Joe’s leadership.”
~Jackie Schmidt, Ph.D., communication professor

“The thing most striking is that he served the University in a number of capacities and he has always been deeply committed to the welfare of the institution. So, there’s a way in which he has always put others, certainly other faculty but also the institution, as more important than his individual advancement.”
~Paul Lauritzen, Ph.D., theology and religious studies professor

“He’s dedicated to John Carroll and supportive of students and faculty. As a young faculty member, he encouraged me to get my Ph.D. so I could have a career in higher education. It was the best advice I ever received.”
~Mary Beadle, Ph.D., communication professor

“Joe Miller was the first person I met at JCU. He was my advisor in the communication and theatre arts department in 1984. I remember each time we met to schedule the next semester classes he would qualify this by adding, “If, and only if, you’re successful in these classes, then we can meet next semester and do this all over again.” There was something about him that reminded me of my dad. Later I learned he had children who were my age, so I imagine he was infusing fatherly advice as well. It worked. He kept me on track. Now, some 20 years later, I came to work with him in that same department.”
~Lisa Lewis, media services coordinator

“The laugh is distinctive. I was walking and talking with a sophomore earlier this year near the restrooms, and all of a sudden, you heard Joe Miller laughing clear across the O’Malley Center right down that little hallway over toward the Administration Building. The student asked, ‘Is it true he’s retiring this year?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘I’m going to miss that cackle.’ And I’m going to dearly miss that cackle.’”
~Brent Brossmann, Ph.D., associate communication professor

In the classroom
In the early ’60s, Miller acted as an adviser for The Carroll News. At first, everything that was published was approved by Miller. Eventually, he allowed students more control.

“That just wasn’t the real world,” he says. “I pulled back and relied on the men and women who were the editors to take the responsibility for what they said rather than having me read and approve everything.”

With world events such as the Vietnam War and Kent State shootings, Miller’s students knew how to present the news.

“There were editors who had that sense of responsibility,” he says. “They wrote about those things and reflected on them. They wrote with a sense of accuracy, honesty, integrity, and all those qualities that characterized the University. By the time I left as the advisor in the early ’80s, the advisor was just that, as opposed to a moderator who controlled everything.”

Miller helped shape the University-funded movement toward a biweekly paper and eventually a weekly issue of The Carroll News soon after his time as advisor ended.

During his time as a professor, Miller taught the CO100 Public Speaking course, which is part of the core curriculum. While CO100 is now held in a traditional classroom, the class used to be taught in a lecture-style format, breaking off into smaller classrooms throughout the semester. Miller acted as the head lector for the class for many years.

“Dr. Talk – that’s what some called him when I first came here,” Schmidt says.

While teaching many students at the same time could be difficult, Miller always kept them on their toes.

“I used to teach a class in room 304, which is no longer used,” he says. “I had a class in there one day as a young guy in the mid ’60s. The men in the class – there were about 15 – were uninspired with what I had to say. One day, a pigeon flew through the window, landed on the little alcove and parked itself on a radiator. Nobody paid any attention because it happened every now and again. So I said to them, ‘I’m giving this class to the pigeon.’ So I lectured to the pigeon, and the pigeon would periodically coo, and I’d say, ‘This is a better response than I’d get from any of you guys.’”

A colleague and friend
More than 50 people responded to the alumni association’s newsletter inviting former pupils to Miller’s retirement party. Several letters were sent to display the gratitude for his professorship and leadership. Several board members, trustees, corporate officers, and vice presidents of the University have passed through his classroom throughout the years, the most famous person being Tim Russert ’72.

While groups of faculty have gathered together throughout the years, Miller was a noted member of a lunch group that sat at what was known to some as The Power Table.

“The name came about only recently, and not from me,” he says. “It ranges anywhere from 3 to 13 people on any particular day. Paul V. Murphy invited a student to sit down, but the student said, ‘No, no, no. I can’t meet at the power table.’”

“I’ve heard it referenced as the old man’s table as well, but Joe held court there,” Brossmann says. “Many of those people spoke at his retirement party and roasted him that day. There was a lot of good-natured ribbing but certainly a lot of respect.”

Living close by in South Euclid, Ohio, Joe; his wife, Helen; and his children remain a part of the University. They’re also godparents to some of Schmidt’s children. Two of Miller’s five children have JCU degrees, and all five attended Carroll at some point. One son, Chris ’83, was elected president of the Student Union, and another, John ’91, played a leading role in the debate program.

“One condition of attending JCU was they wouldn’t enroll in my classes, or complain about other instructors in the department,” he says.

During his retirement, Miller plans to spend his time with his wife visiting his children and grandchildren, as well as continuing to maintain his garden.

“I talk to the plants, and they always agree with me,” Miller says. “They think I’m right, but if they disagree, I pull them up.”

While Miller is moving onto a new stage in life, he cherishes his time at Carroll.

“Did I come here with the expectation I’d be here forever? No,” he says. “Did I ever think I’d spend my life as a university professor? Absolutely not. But soon it became apparent that it was challenging, enriching, and enjoyable.” JCU

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