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William E. Miller:
The Man Who Wanted To Be Vice President
By Libby Milller Fitzgerald

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(Excerpt from Libby Miller Fitzgerald's forthcoming memoir/biography of her father)

There is an imposing bronze plaque affixed to the wall in the south entrance of the Notre Dame Law School. One corner features a relief of the Golden Dome, the other a relief of the United States Capitol dome. It stands alone, in solitary splendor, yet most students no doubt pass by it unnoticing day after day. I always pay it a special visit on my way to the stadium for fall football games whenever I return to the campus where my daughter spent four years of her life. If my father had lived to see this moving memorial to him, conceived by his beloved Class of '35 and dedicated by Father Hesburgh at their 50th reunion in 1985, it very possibly would have been the proudest moment of his life.

William E. (Bill) Miller, Republican vice-presidential candidate in 1964, the only Notre Dame alum ever to be chosen to run for the second highest office in the land, could claim many proud moments in his too-short life of 69 years. But his love for Notre Dame and the pride he felt in being part of its hallowed traditions was deep and permeating. It was all the more so because he had once been such an unlikely prospect for the privilege of attending Notre Dame at all.

Like so many young Catholic boys of his day, Dad had nurtured the dream of attending the University -- glued to the radio for their weekly gridiron encounters, he had felt an almost mystical kinship with the school. But growing up as he did in a modest home in the small industrial Erie Canal town of Lockport, New York -- grandson of Irish and German immigrants, a child of the Depression, his father a janitor - that dream seemed distant and unattainable. Yet with the proceeds from his assorted boyhood jobs and entrepreneurial ventures, the help of his hard-working mother who opened a millinery shop, and the generosity of a widowed aunt who, unbeknownst to anyone, had stashed away money for her favorite nephew, the dream did indeed become possible.

The plaque goes on to commemorate the major achievements of Dad's life after his years on campus - securing the coveted Moot Court prize from Albany Law School; his rise from a private in the U.S. Army during World War II to selection as an assistant prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945; outstanding lawyer and District Attorney of Niagara County, New York; influential member of the United States Congress for 14 years; intrepid leader of the Republican party as its national chairman during three tumultuous years; and his selection as the vice-presidential nominee of the Republican Party in 1964. But if that list doesn't tell the full story of his legacy, the final words, etched in gold, do: "William E. Miller made a lasting impression on all who met him. He epitomized the motto on Sacred Heart Church: 'God, Country and Notre Dame.' "

As we near the 40th anniversary of my father's run for national office with the presidential election of 2004, replete with the usual dissatisfaction over the contending candidates, I am reminded of the pithy words Senator Barry Goldwater once used to capture the humor, decency and commitment to public service that his 1964 running mate exemplified: "Bill was a good trooper, fought the good fight, and went home to Lockport, New York, with a smile and good grace . . ." Dad's press secretary once wrote of him: "Recognized by his friends, and even some of his enemies, as one of the best political minds and most effective orators of his day, he was also an unabashed flag-waver with deeply held feelings for American freedom and institutions."

This jaunty, impeccably dressed little man with the tilted Homburg hat and the tremendous, riveting voice had so often defied the powers-that-be - men who had the power to make his political career a short one - to stand for what he believed. That was because he was never wedded to becoming a permanent fixture in Washington, and he never took himself, or the influence he had accrued, too seriously. Eyes flashing with suppressed wit, he once wryly observed to a Republican audience: "I couldn't be any more forgotten than I am as a former candidate for Vice President, unless I had won."

The doors to my father's heady world really opened to him with his admission to Notre Dame in 1931 - before that he had never left Lockport, and never imagined he would. Back then, the application process was a far simpler proposition than it is today - "just the facts ma'am": your name, address, birth date, high school grades, two letters of recommendation, and a one-line answer to the question, "What is your reason for choosing the University of Notre Dame?" Dad wrote, in the typical straightforward fashion that was to mark his entire life, "because of religious affiliation and scholastic standing." There was no interminable list of enriching extracurricular activities, no excruciatingly creative parent-written essays required. Having secured the recommendation of his favorite teacher, Maria Snyder, whose constant refrain in her rigorous English classes at Lockport High was "where is your purpose sentence?" and the kind words of his principal Edmond Evans, Dad thought he was all set. But there was a hitch.

August arrived and he had not yet received his letter of acceptance. It was the only place to which he had applied and, never short on self-confidence, he assumed there would be no problem. So he wrote the Registrar a letter, brief and to the point. I quote it in full because it is so typical of my father's life-long habit of knowing exactly what he wants, going after it with tenacity, and going to the top to get it.

Dear Sir,

I sent in my application for admission to your University last April. I received

acknowledgement of my money order for $25 and was informed that you would

notify me later concerning my acceptance. To date I have not received any

statement from you.

Two weeks later, through my instigation, another Lockport boy, Wm Spalding,

sent in his application, and two weeks ago received notice of acceptance.

Being practically certain that I have the required units, and fearing there may

be some oversight, or that a statement from you might not have reached me, and

as I am very anxious to go to Notre Dame, I am taking the liberty of writing you

again.

Very Truly Yours,

Wm. E. Miller

 

Suffice it to say, three weeks later Dad was boarding a train for South Bend.

It is hard to imagine what a 17-year-old boy, who had never been farther than 20 miles from his small town, would have felt as he rolled, alone, for the better part of a day and night through the belching industrial cities along Lake Erie and the endless, flat and empty farmland of the Midwest toward a new home some 550 miles away. As fearless and self-assured as the young Bill Miller often seemed, I suspect he had a few butterflies.

When he arrived on campus on that typically sweltering South Bend September day in his usual dapper but somewhat rumpled-from-traveling cord suit and vest, suitcase and old beat-up portable record player in hand, he went straight to Main Building. Checking on his dorm assignment, he found he had gotten his second choice, Dillon Hall. And he met a warm, friendly and talkative group of boys, who, to his relief, seemed accepting of each other, no matter the diverse backgrounds from which they had come.

Though he doubtless failed to appreciate it at the time, the vast campus my father was seeing for the first time in 1931 was nearing the end of a breathless two decades of expansion. I suppose slightly terrified freshmen are not usually prone to be cognizant of such things. But despite the cataclysmic events that had swept the world during that period - the bloody Great War, the Depression, the rise of Fascism - Notre Dame had prospered and grown. No less than 29 buildings had been built or renovated since 1910, including 9 residence halls, the South Dining Hall replete with handsome dark wooden chairs and tables, and the famous football stadium, which at the time was rarely filled. Even Sacred Heart Basilica with its awesome gothic spires was undergoing a tasteful renovation.

Making a significant contribution to this rapid growth was the presence some few years earlier of one of the greatest football dynasties of all time - Knute Rockne, George Gipp and the Four Horsemen. They had stormed the Northeast and taken an increasingly impressive football program to national fame by winning an unofficial national championship in 1924, spawning a new enthusiasm for collegiate football. The campus paper noted: "Rockne's success enabled poor Catholic boys of all descents to have a shot at an education." Understandably then, when Dad arrived at Notre Dame, the campus and the football world were still reeling from Rockne's tragic death in a plane crash earlier that year, in March.

By 1931, the Depression had somewhat shrunk the student body, and with the array of new dorms, it was now possible for everyone to live on campus. That was not quite mandatory but strongly encouraged, since it enabled the Prefect of Discipline to more closely monitor the boys' activities. With money tight for most of them anyway, it was the cheapest place to live. So Dad's only fling with off-campus living, now so common, was the two months he and the other Dillon Hall assignees had to wait while their dorm, still under construction when they arrived freshman year, was completed.

One of the required courses first year was mysteriously called "Bionomy." Not surprisingly, the first question asked in the class was inevitably: "Why is this class called Bionomy?" The response of Professor Bocskei: "Because we are going to teach biology the first half of the semester and botany the second half." The biology portion turned out to be a modified sex education class and the students apparently exhibited such intense interest that there never was a botany lecture. Attendance was a perfect 100 percent, Dad's Bionomy classmate Al Lawton recalled. It may be worth noting that my father scored a mere 70 in this course - a "D," as it were. I am not certain of the implications of that, except that it may somehow account for the notable lack of scandal, sexual or otherwise, in his future political and personal life.

The rules and regulations of the 1930s, designed, as they were, to mold moral character, might strike one as harsh and restrictive by today's slightly less stringent standards - though today's students might question whether their rules are any less stringent. The boys griped about lights out at 11 p.m., no girls or liquor in the dorms and the myriad of other seemingly Draconian laws. Yet there was no shortage of clever ways found to circumvent or ignore them, and it is doubtful the un-permissive mandates stifled any fun at all. One classmate recalls the time when Father Marr found Dad and a friend carrying a rather heavy carton into the front door of Walsh dorm, in preparation for a large gathering in their room. When the priest asked, "What's that, boys?" Dad brashly and ingenuously replied, "Liquor and beer, Father." Marr laughed heartily and continued walking on down the steps, leaving the two young men to ponder whether he didn't believe them or just gave them a pass. They suspected it was the former.

Dad's first foray into political organization came near the end of his freshman year, and it was ill fated. His buddy Louis Hruby recalls that their group of "freshies" wised up quickly about the seriousness of campus politics. A group of them had put up a slate of candidates for Sophomore Class officers, with Dad as campaign manager. Exerting minimal effort, they went down to a crushing defeat.

So in the room above the arch of Lyons Hall at the beginning of sophomore year, my father's group planted the seeds early to elect the president of their junior class. Their candidate would be his roommate and dear friend from the campus Buffalo Club, Tom LaLonde, and Dad, now a seasoned campaign manager, was to have a second chance at exercising his political skills. The result this time, after a hard fought campaign, was resounding success, to be repeated again the following year when Dad got Tom elected president of the Student Activities Council. Once when the candidate made a suggestion to his manager about campaign strategy, my father's reply, after listening quietly, was: "Tom, you go ahead saying 'hello' to all the boys and remembering their names, which you're really good at, but you leave the thinking to me."

Of course there was a payoff to Dad both times. Tom rewarded him the first time with the Junior Prom chairmanship. The chairman's date, Pat McArdle, a St. Mary's girl, rated an oversized picture on the "Society" page of the South Bend paper as the prom queen, and the campus paper ran a picture of the honored couple captioned: "Chairman Bill Miller looks out of the corner of his eye (at Pat)." Louis Hruby, who wrote the copy, recalls that he had to restrain himself from saying what he really wanted to say about that "look," or risk being censored by the Faculty Board of Publications. The class judged the prom, held at the elegant Palais Royale with the popular Ted Weems band, a huge success.

"Blue Circle reorganized with William Miller as Chairman," announced The Notre Dame Scholastic in September of 1934. That was the second "carrot" from President Tom LaLonde to his savvy campaign chairman for a job well done. Membership in the Circle, a subsidiary of the Student Activities Council, was cut from 35 to 18 that year and "great care was exercised in the selection of members, inasmuch as the purpose of the organization is honorary as well as utilitarian," reported the campus paper.

In the past, the Circle had been almost a group of glorified cheerleaders whose main job was to rally enthusiasm among the students for the football team, but now it was supposedly taking on new and more dignified dimensions. Its members were to mediate between students and the University Disciplinary Board in suspension cases, usher at concerts, plan the programs for pep meetings, hire prestigious speakers for the student body, and generally act as the guardians of sacred Notre Dame traditions - which occasionally meant dunking boys in one of the two on-campus lakes who defied them. Bolstering the Notre Dame spirit would prove to be a particularly challenging task this year, since the football team had compiled an abysmal record the year before - "the giant is sleeping," The Scholastic had somberly observed.

Dad's college buddies echoed his high school friends in attesting to the fact that he made better marks in his studies with less apparent effort than anyone they knew. Even a friend from home recalls that when he once paid Dad an unexpected visit at Notre Dame the day before an important exam, my father sat on his bed for a few minutes perusing the text book from Mr. Plunkett's Latin course, slammed it shut, went out for the rest of the night and proceeded to ace the exam. He would rarely eschew a night at Paddy's with beers, Limburger cheese sandwiches and good visits with "the Boys" for a night of hard work in the library. Though not considered an intellectual, his mind was called "sharp as a tack." In sophomore year, the game of contract bridge hit campus, and my father, along with his good friend, the young economics professor Lee Flatley, spent considerable hours in a tower room of Sorin Hall teaching the perils of over-bidding to assorted students and other professors.

"The Dap," short for dapper, was a nickname given to Dad early in his college career, and it stuck with him. "Bill was always meticulously attired. Indeed, if there had been any sort of award for appearance, Bill would have been an easy winner. I'll always remember him in his trim clothes and tab collared shirts," recalls his friend Al Lawton. That impression was reinforced by a "Man About Campus" article in the school paper which marveled at how "Dapper" could maintain the crease in his pants over a whole weekend and "show up at that nine o'clock Monday morning class with a press that you could sharpen a pencil on. He has a penchant for stiff collars and wears them as though he actually likes them."

How my father managed this legendary sartorial splendor has always been a bit of a mystery to me - these were, after all, hard times and he had limited funds. His dorm rooms were reportedly sparsely furnished - in addition to the bed, a spindly table tied with a two-inch rope in rickety fashion to the radiator, and a dresser, affectionately called his "Louis XIV piece," with drawers that didn't work but faces that pulled off so socks, shirts and underwear could be stuffed in from the front. But with the money he earned and what his relatives occasionally sent, I suspect it was a priority for my proud father to dress well in order not to be labeled a poor boy.

The truth is that Dad's salesmanship talent is what saved him. He and Tom LaLonde secured from the Balfour Company the class ring and pin concession, which proved to yield them a fairly lucrative commission. The entrepreneurial pair also clinched the campus Christmas card concession. And finally, Dad's past success back home in the fireworks business as a scrappy young boy prompted him to launch a similar venture on campus with another friend. That alone, he reported to his cousin Dick Shultz, confidentially and with great pride, netted him $4000 after four years, an impressive sum even before adjusting for inflation.

This student-cum-salesman routine was doubtless time-consuming, but it was the middle of the Depression and boys had to scramble to find spending money for their perks - dance tickets, beers, occasional tickets on the South Shore Line for trips to Chicago. Tuition, room and board was just under $500 freshman year, which, while akin to pocket change by today's tuition standards, was hard to come by in the 1930s.

Dad considered debating one of the most formative of his college activities. Eugene Blish, an erstwhile teammate, gave me an insightful and prescient description of my father from those days:

Bill had a strong, manly attitude and expression, a memorable voice and diction

and forceful command of the language, whether he was describing last week's

football game or the New Deal policies of FDR. Bill was youthful, confident

and self-reliant, far more mature for his age than the rest of us. No doubt about

it, Bill was blessed with strong convictions. In a very persuasive way, he would

let you know exactly what he thought was best for the world, for the United

States of America, for Upstate New York, for Notre Dame, for Alumni Hall, and

for Bill Miller.

Coach Bill Coyne demanded that his boys train themselves to take both the affirmative and negative of a debate topic. The universal collegiate debate subject one year was the world-wide acquittance of all World War I debts, and Dad explained one day at practice how hard it would be for him to argue the side of that issue in which he did not believe. "On the other hand," teammate Blish added, "when Bill would speak for a cause he sincerely believed was right, he was a fearless, overpowering, intimidating public speaker. That's when we all wanted to be teamed up with Bill Miller."

Gene Blish, obviously reveling in the opportunity to recall his old friend and debate partner of so long ago, continued to offer me his memories of my father:

Bill walked around the campus like he was suspended at a level about three inches above the rest of us -- just high enough to be above the black cinder pathways, the temporary wooden boardwalks in front of Dillon and Alumni Halls, or the gummy Indiana mud that surrounded us in all directions on rainy days. But all that aloofness was okay; we all understood that wild, unpredictable, fun-loving Bill Miller. He was the outstanding leader among our classmates - an accomplished, decent and most respected individual.

A 1934 campus newspaper feature article took liberties with an Oliver Goldsmith poem to pithily sum Dad up:

In arguing, too, the Dapper owned his skill

For, even tho' vanquished, he could argue still;

While words of learned length and thundering sound

Amaz'd the gazing rustics rang'd around;

And still they gaz'd, and still the wonder grew,

That one small man could know all he knew.


So with his Bachelor of Arts diploma in hand, a pre-law major in economics and minor in public speaking, an academic record that was not brilliant but respectable, a batch of good buddies from cities far-flung from Lockport, and some newfound political savvy, a small town boy walked proudly across that improvised stage in the old Field House in June of 1935. His parents were there for the first time, finally able to see where their sacrifice had enabled their son to spend the most memorable four years of his life to date.

Dad was ready to move on, enthusiastic about a future he knew was far more promising than any he could have magined for himself 21 years earlier. He was to remark in a speech many years later:

"It is not until one has been out of school for several years that he fully understands in how many ways his University has placed its stamp upon him. Notre Dame, dedicated to the development of the whole man, makes its imprint on mind and will, soul and body of its graduates. We alumni don't all leave here with the poetic genius of a Father O'Donnell, the deep human sympathy of a Cardinal O'Hara, the intellectual brilliance of a Yves Simon, or the athletic achievements of a Knute Rockne, but something of what these men - and many others - have imparted to Notre Dame is likely to rub off on us."

As the familiar strains of "The Notre Dame Victory March" reverberated thunderously and joyously from the rafters of the cavernous San Francisco Cow Palace on the evening of July 16, 1964, and my father, his proud family at his side, stood on the podium to receive the unanimous nomination of the cheering, raucous Republican delegates, he was reminded once again of his deep pride in his alma mater. And of what its values and academic excellence had made possible for him.

POSTSCRIPT

Forget what I said about all the other proud moments in my father's life. The proudest of all was possibly a small event that happened at a luncheon given by Father Hesburgh in 1967, three years after the resounding defeat of the Goldwater/Miller ticket in 1964. It was the weekend of the Michigan State game, and we -- my father and mother, my new husband, Paul, and I -- were all sitting at a table with several prominent guests.

Among them was a member of the Michigan State Athletic Department, whose wife, sitting next to my husband, was continually eyeing my father. When she could suppress her curiosity no longer, she quietly asked Paul who Dad was, and he casually replied that his father-in-law was "a pretty famous alum." Insistent on solving her quandary, she asked his name, to which Paul teased her a bit more by simply replying, "Miller." After a few moments of reflection, the woman, all smiles of satisfaction, burst forth with what she obviously thought was a brilliant discovery -- "I know who you are. You're one of the Four Horsemen!"

The Michigan State official was no doubt mortified by his wife's attempt to appear knowledgeable about sacred Notre Dame football lore. One of the Four Horsemen's name was indeed Miller, but it was Don Miller, and he was a good 12 years older and I imagine a bit larger than my father. But dear Dad, 5-foot-7 inches and 135 pounds ("dripping wet," as he used to say), was proud and tickled for the rest of his life to be able to tell the story of being mistaken for a legendary Notre Dame football player.

* * *

(November 2003)

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