Professor Tommy Miller and Friends
Last Saturday morning, Tommy Miller left us.
He had suffered from a long illness, and I had kept up with him as he was diagnosed and I went to see him in Beaumont on two occasions. The last time was particularly poignant.
A little before noon on May 17, I rang the doorbell at Professor David McHam’s house on Swift Street in Houston, Texas. He invited me into the kitchen where Professor Tommy Miller was sitting.
He looked up and then stood and gave me a big hug. And in his dry way he said, “Dr. Norton.”
“How are you doing?” I asked and looked for a chair near him so that we could talk.
“Pretty good,” he said and then, almost as an afterthought, “Not bad.”
Tommy had come to Ole Miss during the late spring of 1981 after Dr. Don Williams had told me he was leaving the Department of Journalism at Ole Miss because he wanted to get back into journalism.
Don had resigned from Baylor a year earlier when that university had reacted strongly to Playboy Magazine taking photos of Baylor students, and some of the staff of the Baylor Lariat had been disciplined for running stories on Playboy representative’s activities on campus. In protest, Don had resigned from the faculty.
When I heard the news, I asked two faculty members who had been at Baylor about Don. Professor McHam, then a professor at Southern Methodist University, and Michael Stricklin, a former Baylor instructor and an assistant professor at Nebraska, both highly recommended Williams. However, after only a year, he was moving on. He had purchased a weekly newspaper in a little town on the High Plains, and he wanted to be a community newspaper editor.
Therefore, I again telephoned Professor McHam: “David, I need someone to replace Don Williams. Would you give me the names of several possible candidates?” I knew you could not have a good search without several good candidates.
“Tommy Miller, the assistant city editor of the Houston Chronicle,” he said.
“Any others?” I asked.
“Do you have more than one position?” McHam said.
In other words, McHam was letting me know that Tommy was a superior talent, and he knew Tommy wanted to leave the Houston Chronicle.
We went through the search process. Tommy clearly was the best choice, and he joined us in the fall of 1981, teaching with us until the spring of 1983 – when he took a leave of absence to become managing editor of the Beaumont Enterprise.
After a year, the phone rang on my desk, “Norton, can you use a reporting and editing teacher?” Tommy asked.
“Sure.” I said.
Tommy was coming back, and he joined a faculty that included Charlie Mitchell, Jim Pratt, Ed Welch, Jere Hoar and Samir Husni.
However, during Tommy’s previous years at Ole Miss, a member of our advisory committee, Tony Pederson, the managing editor of the Houston Chronicle, had gotten much better acquainted with Tommy and learned of his extraordinary news talents. In the middle of the semester he offered Tommy the position of assistant managing editor-news at the Houston Chronicle.
Tommy could not resist the opportunity and left the faculty after the fall semester. Several years later, Tony was promoted to executive editor and Tommy to managing editor.
While they had been in Oxford, Ms. Darla, Tommy’s wife, rejuvenated the day care center at the university and our children attended “Ms. Darla’s school.” She was an incredible school administrator and teacher, and the Norton children loved going to school because it was so much fun, and there were so many things to learn.
Now Darla is a retired college and university professor — a well-respected learning development specialist.
When I had arrived at the McHam home, Professor McHam and Betty Lynn McHam, David’s wife, had been talking with Darla and with Darla’s sister and niece.
Professor McHam is the journalism teacher who has produced more outstanding media professionals than anyone I know. He was a faculty member at Baylor University, then Southern Methodist University and now the University of Houston. There are hundreds of outstanding alumni from each school who credit him with preparing them for great careers. Betty Lynn is a former Corporate Secretary of the Shell Oil Company Foundation.
I had been at the McHam’s only a few minutes last May when Tony Pederson and Jack Loftis arrived, and the women went on errands. Tony, Professor and Belo Distinguished Chair in Journalism at Southern Methodist University, is a former student of McHam’s at Baylor and a former executive editor of the Houston Chronicle. Jack, also a Baylor graduate, was Tony’s predecessor as executive editor.
Tony had brought lunch from the Goode Company — fine barbecue and fixings and an exceptional pecan pie for dessert.
It was a special day.
Talking with Tommy always has been interesting and encouraging, and on this day it had more meaning. We each had been looking forward to sharing stories and catching up.
Tommy was quieter than he usually is. So the rest of us talked more and told some of his stories, and the conversation was not as rich and detailed as it might have been if he had been talking more, but the day was filled with whimsy and humor and warmth.
I told a story that Tommy had told me years earlier: He had been in Oxford to speak to classes and interview potential interns, and we had taken him to Taylor Grocery for catfish.
After supper, as we were walking out into the parking lot, our daughter, Laine, about 2 at the time, asked if she and her brother William could ride back to town with Tommy.
“Sure,” I said, and off they went.
However, in those days, before all the apartments and condos, the woods crowded both sides of the road, and the ride could be a little scary on a moonlit night.
Laine and William were riding with someone they hardly knew, and moon light was flickering on Tommy’s bearded face.
Laine grew quiet. She was having some worries about who she was riding with and she needed something to strengthen her confidence.
“Let’s all sing Jesus Loves Me,” she said.
So Tommy Miller led our two children in singing Jesus Loves Me as they rode through the Lafayette countryside.
For Laine, the fact that Tommy knew Jesus Loves Me and could sing it with them was a sure sign that she did not need to worry about him, and through the years she became very fond of this person who often would visit our house – whether in Oxford or Lincoln, NE.
During our May visit to the McHam home, we ate and told stories from 11:30 until 3:30, and I read portions of e-mail messages Ole Miss alumni had sent me about their memories of Tommy as a teacher.
An e-mail message from Patti Patterson Smith had reminded me that Tommy used to read a column by Mike Royko (on the closing of the Chicago Daily News, March 3, 1978) at the last class of each semester.
When Tommy joined the Ole Miss faculty, he took over the advanced reporting class I had been teaching. I gave him my notes to look through, and he continued the tradition of reading the column. I read a few graphs from that column after we finished dessert, and I have to admit I did not read it without tears:
“When I was a kid, the worst of all days was the last day of summer vacation, and we were in the schoolyard playing softball, and the sun was down and it was getting dark. But I didn’t want it to get dark. I didn’t want the game to end. It was too good, too much fun. I wanted it to stay light forever, so we could go on playing forever, so the game would go on and on.
“That’s how I feel now. C’mon, c’mon. Let’s play one more inning. One more time at bat. One more pitch. Just one? Stick around, guys. We can’t break up this team. It’s too much fun.
“But the sun always went down. And now it’s almost dark again.”
- Will Norton Jr.
Note from Kate Magandy Holzhauser
When I was in his advanced reporting class, we divided the class into teams at the end of term. Each team was tasked with finding Miller’s house (not listed) and draw a map to the house. First team to turn in a CORRECT map got points added to their final grade. Map was then posted for an end-of-term party at Miller’s. Our team won and the party was awesome. It snowed! And I still have photos of Miller learning the “Time Warp” (from “Rocky Horror”). I’ll never forget it.
Election night, Miller’s 520 class, the “copy desk” for the DM, had to work late to edit election copy. In addition, I also was working sports and had a story walk in off the street, so wrote that up before my desk shift. It made A-1 at the bottom, but Miller, who edited that story, misspelled my last name on my first front-page byline. Miller wrote about it in his “From the Front Lines” daily critique and actually gave me the original — something he rarely did. I still have it framed in my office at home. A true treasure.
Miller was a wonderful teacher and mentor, and I often quote him to others. He really made me want to work in newspapers.
Kate Magandy Holzhauser (’84)
Note from John Thomas
I remember being in the first day of Tommy's reporting class when he barked out our first assignment — which was to write a newspaper article using three sources that we had to find and interview on campus that morning. I can't recall the topic, but I sure remember the sheer panic in the classroom that day as everyone scurried off to complete the assignment on time.
Tommy always stressed consistency and discipline, which is why I decided to write a weekly column for The Daily Mississippian that reviewed and ranked the intramural flag football teams. Not the most hard-hitting journalism, but he liked it because I was delivering a consistent work product on time and without mistakes — at least ones that I can remember! He was demanding, but his real-world experience, high expectations and no-nonsense style made us all better writers and reporters. I’m sure everyone thanks him for that gift.
Please tell him hello and that I wish him the very best.
P.S.: He was tough, but worth all the effort he demanded.
Note from Kim Phillips
He and his family lived near Tim and me when we first married, and I did not know it until I responded to an ad in the paper about a kitchen table and chairs for sale. When I went to view the table and chairs at the advertisers’ home, I was at the Miller’s! I had no idea I was going to a former professors home! He gave us a great deal on the table and chairs, and we used them in our kitchen for years and later used them as part of displays for the Hallmark. I still have the table and chairs and actually think of him when I see them.
I remember assignments that he would give that would consist of having to review newspapers week after week, specifically looking for follow-up stories on specific articles. I still look for follow-up stories today!
Note from Lelia Wright
I do have a memory of how scary he was the first class I had under him, and how we had to immediately go out and interview people on the street for media reports due the next class meeting! As I recall, Tommy seemed to enjoy creating this illusion of being ultra serious, but as it turned out, he was not like that, at all! In order to get our final exam grade, we were required to find our way to his house for a Christmas party — seems like by some sort of scavenger hunt, or something? Anyway, he was a very good professor — once you got past his veneer.
Note from Lynn Petrie Ronaldi
I was in journalism from 1980 to 1983.
I just remember how even keeled he was, with a dry sense of humor. I also remember him sitting on the edge of his desk with a pipe in his mouth as he taught. He was a stickler for AP style! I thought he was a talented and fair teacher of news and feature writing.
Lynn Petrie Ronald (’83)
Note from Hamp Rogers
I believe I was in the first Advanced Reporting class that Tommy taught at Ole Miss 30 years ago. It remains one of the most memorable classes of my college career (right up there with Jere Hoar’s Communication Law class).
Tommy, not being a a traditional academic, had a unique teaching style. One test was, for lack of a better description, a “pop culture” quiz in which he asked numerous questions about contemporary happenings that, as observant reporters-to-be, we should be aware of. I found it a refreshing way to emphasize the importance of a good reporter being well-rounded.
Tommy had “street cred” as a reporter/editor that I was excited to be a part of in the classroom. I ran into him years later at an editorial board briefing at the Chronicle and we reminisced about those days.
I hate to hear of this illness. Please give him my best.
Note from Jane Hill
Please give Miller my best when you see him Tuesday.
Now I don’t even know where to start with memories of Miller and some of these I am sure you will hear from many other of his students. Some may not be considered ready for prime time. Here are some of my strongest ones:
First Day of Reporting Class: Miller gave three assignments. The first is due in 15 minutes: find a contact number, source of information for a particular agency, department or organization on campus. The second is due by the end of the day, short update of a developing or ongoing story on campus or in Oxford. The third is due by the next class period: report and write an actual news story. (The frenzy was amazing. Best winnower of serious vs. non-serious journalism students I have ever seen!)
The News Quiz: Each of the students names are taped to a card in a poker deck. At the beginning of each class Miller shuffles the deck, throws down a card and asks the person whose name is on it a current events question. And if you don’t think there was some heavy duty newspaper reading before class started….
He called us all by our last names, which interjected a professional air to everything we did in his courses and at the DM. And it is probably the reason that I still think of him and call him Miller. He had a cut-through-the-crap manner, which forced you to focus on essentials and a hunger for reporting that was infectious. Dry doesn’t even begin to describe his humor. You were always on your toes with him.
Baseball metaphor ran through everything he did. You definitely did not want a strike three, but he would also let you know when you had hit a home run.
His rant against elegant variation in news writing has always stuck with me. As he sashayed down the center aisle of the classroom in a mock lilting Percy Dovetonsils accent: “Stated … averred … maintained … declared … stated … averred … maintained … declared … Just use the word “said”! If the quote is good, it doesn’t need to be dressed up. If it’s not good, elegant variation isn’t going to make it good. Paraphrase!”
After my three-part series on the establishment of statewide public kindergarten programs in Mississippi, Miller forbid me ever to use the word “implement” in a story ever again. My quota was used up. (So far, so good!)
I think it was homecoming week, I and a group of students were sitting on Faulkner’s grave, sharing libations between ourselves and the grave. Miller shows up with Tony Pederson. They seem sort of surprised to find us there. We chat awkwardly for a while, then Miller admits that they had come out to shoot out the nearby street lamp throwing light across Faulkner’s grave, “So the man could get some rest.”
After Miller returned to the Chronicle in 1986 and the space shuttle Challenger exploded, he came back to give a lecture which I attended. I will never forget him telling us that he had assigned more than 60 different angles in covering that disaster by the end of the first day.
Miller offered me a summer internship at the Houston Chronicle after graduation in 1987, which I took. I later learned that the managing editor Tony Pederson had bet Miller that I would not take him up on the offer and that Miller had wagered his Stan Musial baseball card that I would. Needless to say, I was very relieved that I didn’t lose Miller that bet!
While working in Texas, Miller introduced me to Mexican beer, Texas BBQ and Evan Moore, the investigative features writer for the Chronicle, all very bracing experiences. Moore had talents, drive and an old, nicotine/caffeine soaked newspaper man ethic that I could never hope to emulate, but I learned a lot from talking to him over that summer even though he (jokingly?) told me more than once he didn’t approve of women in the newsroom….
Miller once tore a dollar bill in half and gave half to me. He told me if I was ever in a really tight fix I should send it to him as a signal and we’d meet in three days across the border from El Paso at the Florida Bar in Juarez. He’d be at the table in the back. We’d map out a plan to get me out of that fix or maybe just drink Tecates ’til the whole thing blew over. I still have that half dollar bill, just in case…
Jane A. Hill, Ph.D.
Note from Joey Howard
Thanks so much for giving me this opportunity to tell a couple of stories regarding Tommy Miller.
My first story relates to one of his pop tests we got occasionally in his reporting class. We had taken the pop test on say a Monday and when we got back to class on Wednesday, there was Mr. Miller with two Dr Peppers in his hands. After everyone got seated, he strolled over to where I was sitting, popped the Dr Pepper top and placed it on my desk. Then he strolled over to another student’s desk and did the same. Then he said, drink up and enjoy. Mr. Miller then proceeded to tell the class that the two students (me included) he gave the Dr Peppers to were the only ones to spell Dr Pepper correctly on our pop test. I’ve never forgotten how to spell it either.
My second story involves how much he stressed a strong, shocking lead in stories, particularly those that were sidebars or features. He read a story from one of his reporters at the Houston Chronicle. It was a feature. The story’s lead was something like…. “Maggie Smith lives a simple life, is a loving grandmother who loves her family and has a passion for sewing. Then you see her machine gun.” The shocking aspect of the machine gun has stayed with me throughout my professional career. Anytime that I write a feature or a sidebar-type story, I try to capture ‘you see her machine gun’. That just hooks a reader and allows them to dive into your work.
And finally, he orchestrated a mock disaster in Oxford during one of our 90-minute classes. He had contacts all over town play roles such as police, hospital spokesman, family members and so on. Our class became a newsroom with a major, breaking story taking place 45 minutes from deadline. He assigned different students to different tasks. We all dispersed to get our part of the story, came back to the classroom, put it all together and beat the deadline to turn in a 12-inch-or-so story. Exciting stuff. Real-life stuff. It put journalism in your blood if it wasn’t already there.
Mr. Miller was an absolute professional, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about reporting from someone so credentialed.
Note from Eileen Garrard Bailey
Tommy Miller gave me courage. When I walked through the doors of Farley Hall at Ole Miss in the fall of 1984, I thought I would be the next Edna Buchanan. I was going to change the world with my reporting. And even though I didn’t know it at the time, Tommy Miller would be the one to give me courage to be the best reporter I could be. I walked through the doors a sheltered, idealistic junior, and walked out a wiser and more prepared reporter ready to make a difference. Only this time, I was armed with all of the knowledge Tommy Miller could give.
Every day of my 14 years as a reporter, I thought of Mr. Miller and the lessons he taught me. By being tough in those first days of Advanced News Reporter, Mr. Miller taught me persistence, the courage to never give up and the importance of getting the story right the first time. I about died when he told me I had to interview him to write a story about his class. I was shaking in my shoes. But I tracked him down (in the mail room) and got my quotes. Those challenges made me handle anything that came my way later.
Even after 27 years, I still have my “Words on Words” book that was required for his class. I do not write much anymore but will be teaching my seventh and eighth grade journalism students next year using that book. I plan to use all I learned from Mr. Miller when I teach my journalism students for the first time.
I try to show all of my students the importance of current events. I don’t use the deck of cards like he did but we read news stories and some of my classes use news media to have a better understanding of the three branches of government and the Bill of Rights. Thank you, Tommy Miller for giving me the courage to be a good reporter and teacher. You prepared me very well for my life as a reporter and beyond. I am blessed to have had you in my life and you were there for me when I needed you the most.
Eileen Garrard Bailey
Note from Bobby Pepper
Tommy Miller taught me a valuable lesson during a Journalism 271 class meeting in fall 1981. In a story I wrote for the class, I used the word ”felt” — as in, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country,” Jones felt. Miller read this to the class, walked over to me and said, “Bobby, do you know what felt is?” Before I could answer, Miller grabbed my left arm and said, “This is felt. If the person you’re interviewing says something with his mouth, you say, ‘he said’.”
Mr. Miller was a great teacher in both the classroom and the DM newsroom. His professional demeanor set an example for all of us. Please give him my best.
Note from Patti Patterson
Your email has sent me to my attic and the back of a file drawer. I didn’t find everything I wanted, but perhaps some of it will be useful.
One thing I didn’t find was a Mike Royko column that Miller gave me about the last issue of a newspaper and the last baseball game of the summer … and wanting one more inning. It was time for me to leave Ole Miss. I sent it back to him years later when his friend at the Houston Chronicle died (Christy Drennan, I think) and I thought of it a little more than a year ago when my mother was dying. I thought of contacting him and didn’t.
The thing about Tommy Miller was that he taught us journalism and also tried to teach us about life. He pushed us, supported us and believed in us, but let us make our own decisions even when he could see bad judgment at work. He tried to give us a glimpse of a newsroom. He brought working journalists to campus and encouraged us to think like reporters, not students.
I found an assignment I turned in when there were rumors of the sale of The Clarion Ledger. I remember thinking I had a chance of getting the story. I recall he later told me that I got close. I’m not sure how close how got, but I know it wasn’t false praise. He wanted me to understand that I had approached the assignment correctly. Didn’t get that Gannett tip, though.
The heading was “Sources and Info”. It was a progress report on my calls. As I read through it, I don’t remember all the specific calls, but I remember the thrill of the chase and realizing that I could pick up the phone call the New York Times corporate offices. Here’s most of what I submitted.
1. Steve Fegan. Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. Fegan told me to call Dick Hare and Assoc. — the firm that supposedly prepared the prospectus; John Carroll, editor of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader for help with Knight Ridder; NY Times Acquistions and Zach Hederman.
2. Don Hare and Assoc. - marketing consultant. Receptionists insists firm would not handle such an account — tried home no. under assumption that receptionist is uninformed — phone has been disconnected— the way this has been going, I figure Hare is probably the right guy.
3. John Carroll—not familiar with business aspect of Knight-Ridder — suggested calling Mike Maidenburg in Miami for a name. (I haven’t talked witth Maidenburg yet.)
4. Leonard Harris, director of corp. comm. for NY Times— no comment.
5. Willams — Sr. VP Newspaper/TV LA Times — may have copy of prospectus — out of town until next week — sec. Donna will ask.
6. Peter Costa—UPI— no info (more on Costa later!)
7. Norman Mott—MS Press Assoc.— said call Bill Minor.
8. Bill Minor — said to try Greenville, Laurel or Lakeland, FL — haven’t called these yet.
9. Bob Gordon — said to try Ray Hederman’s ex-wife for Ray’s #— got a listing for an R.P. Hederman in J’son— no answer yet; Gordon also said Hederman worked for Par Cable in NY—got a listing for Par Communication—will try Monday.
I got a 92 on the assignment. Would love to give you the date. Unfortunately, the only red ink comment on the page is at the bottom: “always date your material”
I took the class in the spring semester of 1982. I’m certain that at least once I got a coveted flying pig sticker on an assignment! It isn’t in this file, though.
The one story I kept in here has “good lead!”. It was from January about the fall 1981 class. I interviewed Jack Carrel, Allison Brown and Angela Clark.
- One of the best classes in the department, but also one of the most demanding;
- Challenging and time-consuming;
- Angela Clark: “You really have to work hard for a grade, but when you get a good one, it’s one of the most satisfying ones you’ll ever get.” She said Miller was strict, but fair and the takes into consideration how much effort a student puts into a story.
- Jack Carrel: “He’ll really help you. Just go to his office.
- Angela Clark: Said he was the most creative teacher she’d ever had because of his unique method of presentation.
Tips offered by the three. One of the first offered: Learn to use the VDT as soon as possible because it is easier than a typewriter and more efficient. And Carrel also said, “Not many people know how to use them, and there’s usually one vacant.”
They talked about the infamous current events test. Maybe the flying pig stickers were reserved for those? I’m not sure.
Comment from Clark: “Sometimes I dreaded it, but it was all worth it.”
Carrel: “I learned to look around for news. It was by far the best class I’ve ever taken and the rest of the class thought so, too… . We really got to know everybody by working together. We were just like a big family.”
I remember when Cynde ran for cheerleader and didn’t get it. Michelle told her that you couldn’t live on a dirt road and be a cheerleader. Miller loved telling us stories like that about his daughters. I don’t remember other specifics except that Michelle read the book Lucy and was interested in anthropology. He seemed to value the independence of his daughters. I was fascinated by that. I knew that my own parents loved me dearly, but that supporting independence was not high on their list of qualities to nurture in their daughters.
— Last class. My notes say “3:30 parking lot” (not sure what that meant). Next thing said “4-7 - Miller’s house — find it.”
— We found the house, but I first went to the wrong driveway and got stuck at the top and left my car there overnight. And the next semester we told Peter Costa the story about trying to find the house. And then I took Peter Costa out to see the road and the wrong driveway. I told him that I wouldn’t drive to the top of the driveway because I didn’t want to get stuck again. But as I turned around, my wheel slipped into the ditch at the bottom of the driveway. And I think Peter Costa thought this was a joke, and he insisted he could get the car out of the ditch. He couldn’t, so we walked to Miller’s house well after midnight. As we walked, Costa made his famous comment about being stuck in a ditch in East Cupcake, Mississippi. We knocked on the door and Darla answered and Costa said “I need to see Tommy”. And then he turned to me and said, “I don’t think she saw you.” But Darla, of course, went to Miller and said “Peter Costa and Patti Patterson are at the door.” And Miller came close to proving his lecture wrong. He had told us that a reporter would always get you out of a ditch. He didn’t get us out of the ditch, but he did take us back to campus. Close enough.
Note from Dan Turner
Second only to Denley, Miller was one of the people who made journalism — real journalism — appeal to me. When I was working in production at the Daily Mississippian but not yet in journalism school per se, I used to watch the students scramble to the board to read Miller’s critiques of the weeks’ papers. Getting a “kudo” from Miller was almost as good as an open bar tab. His critical comments were very direct. They weren’t mean or personal, although I believe some of them would be taken that way in today’s environment.
Ultimately, Miller was a teacher of the craft. To many, he was a guru of sorts, and his words carried weight. Praise was enough to carry a student through the day; correction clearly left a student knowing where he or she came up short.
Note from John Sowell
I remember my pages bleeding a lot of red during my tenure as Sports Editor of The Daily Mississippian, and those pages being placed in clear public view each and every day. I used to call them my “editorial public floggings.” However, Tommy Miller’s critical eye made me plan, edit and review both my work and my direction much more effectively. The accountability he demanded has benefitted me greatly during my career in the advertising agency, publishing and corporate marketing world.
Note from Amy Lyles Wilson
Tommy Miller may not know it, but he saved me on more than one occasion while I was in graduate school, pursuing a master’s degree in journalism. On a trip to Des Moines to visit the Meredith Corporation, he made me laugh—hearty laughter, the kind in which I did not even have time to cover my mouth — numerous times. That may not seem like much, but for a 20-something woman who had just had her heart broken, it was a reminder that life goes on. During the stressful period in which I was developing my master’s thesis, there was one day in particular that I felt especially “put upon” by one of the members of my thesis committee. I was crying, and I was supposed to work for Professor Miller as a graduate teaching assistant that afternoon. “What happened?” he asked when he saw me in tears. I told him, and he sent me home, telling me not to worry about the jerky faculty member, or about my duties for the day. Small actions, perhaps, but these gestures stick with me after some 25 years, long after the classroom instruction has been misplaced. For the record, though, he was also instrumental in helping me learn how to write…
With deep appreciation and fondness,
Amy Lyles Wilson, Writer
Note from Kathryn Green Ford
I remember he quizzed us on current events and awarded Flying Pig stickers for correct answers. He had one pig left the day Johnny Weathersby and I earned ours, so Mr. Miller gave me the head half of the pig and gave Johnny the tail end! We used a wonderful book called Words on Words (for Writers and Others who Care) that I wish I still had. Thanks to Mr. Miller, my Junior Auxiliary colleagues continue to tease me that I had them reprint brochures because we could not have a “First Annual” golf tournament. I appreciated his recommending me for my internship with Amanda Brown Olmsted. Now that I’m a college instructor myself, I especially cherish those meaningful memories and hope my students remember our classes in 25 years!
Kathryn Green Ford, Class of 1985
Note from Kitty Dumas
I always thought of Tommy Miller as kind of a newspaper god — a newspaperman’s newspaperman. Movies were made about guys like that. Tough, relentless, wily as hell. He was a guy from the big city, who could get any story anywhere. I wanted to be a guy like that.
Tommy had personality, and a look. He was bearded, beyond skinny. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and fancy looking sports coats and slacks. It was what I imagined a city editor should look like. I still remember the smell of his pipe, as he sat puffing in his office critiquing my stories. I always felt privileged to be there. His office was right across from The Daily Mississippian. There he had all sorts of mementos from his career. The one I remember most was a black and white publicity shot of the beautiful actress Veronica Hamel, from Hill Street Blues, autographed to guess who? Tommy Miller. Who is this guy? I used to wonder.
A Texan, Tommy had a rather cut and dry view of the craft — all or nothing. You’re either a newspaperman or you’re not – willing to do what it takes, or you’re not. And that went for women and people of all races. Tommy was above all, an equal opportunity zealot. It was kind of scary. Yet, it appealed to us, his students, to our sense of adventure, and our desire to make a difference in the world. There was something infectious about someone who believed in something so deeply. This was his religion, his life. What better career could there be?
Tommy used to say that a good reporter ought to be able to cover the grisly death of his own mother and get the details right. He wasn’t kidding. I never forgot that. He would tell us these amazing stories about his career and the careers of other great journalists. I would leave his class completely inspired.
I have often thought that any success I had as a journalist I owe to Tommy. He personally trained me to be a good journalist, and taught me to love and respect the craft. When his work was done, I knew I was ready. If he thought I could do it, I could do it.
Before I left Ole Miss, he toughened me up too, tried to make sure that I, a little black girl from a little Mississippi town, wouldn’t get eaten alive out in the big world. He made sure I wouldn’t shock too easy, or at least wouldn’t let on. Tommy taught me to swear. My mother used to tell me that a person shouldn’t say the word lie. “Say ‘tell a story;’ It just sounds nicer.” Too bad she never met Tommy. He changed all that. There was no surly cop, no prisoner in lock-up, no suspected murderer, no transvestite hooker, who could shock me. When the situation warranted, I was a professional. Whenever someone would comment on my language skills, a particularly fine choice of swear words, creatively strung together for maximum impact, I would say, “This guy name Tommy Miller taught me how to swear. Let me tell you about him.”
Kitty Dumas ‘84
Note from Joan Allison
Last Friday, I tried to verify if the instructor I was thinking about was Tommy Miller, but our e-mail was not working well, so I didn’t hear back from you. I hope this e-mail reaches you.
Seems like I had him for editing back in 1985/1986. The instructor I remember was somewhat tall and thin, and I think he had black hair and a beard. Also, it seems like he came from the Dallas Morning News???
If this sounds like Mr. Miller, I can share these thoughts with you:
I remember a teaching technique he used in our class. He created a ‘deck of cards.’ Each card had a class member’s name on it. He had told us all at the beginning of the semester to read at least 3-4 newspapers daily. Every day, he’d get out that deck of cards and pull out name after name, asking the person whose name was on the card a question from the current events in the newspapers. I remember well that one day, he asked me the price of a barrel of oil. Thank God I’d read the New York Times (I think it was the Times) that morning because they had reported that a barrel of oil was $18 (again, I think I took his class in the fall of 1985. Boy, have prices changed!)
He also introduced me to, and taught from one of my favorite books. It’s called Words on Words (Bremmer). The book explained so much about everyday sayings we use such as ‘jury rigged,’ ‘lead balloon,’ and the proper use of the word ‘whether.’ I still have the exact copy I used in college, and still refer to it to this day.
Lastly, I remember that we had a British student in our class. One day, Mr. Miller got a big kick out of relaying a story about this guy that demonstrated how carefully you must choose your words. Apparently, the British student told a girl that he liked that he was going to ‘knock her up’ on Saturday night. Come to find out, this saying is ‘British’ for ‘I’m going to come by to see you (and knock on your door to get you).’
Hope this helps, and I hope that Tommy is the instructor I remember!!!
Note from John Carney
Mr. Miller was one of the hardest working journalism instructors I had while at Ole Miss. He explained journalistic style and the use of words and phrases in a way that planted many of them in my memory. He was patient and very constructive as he ripped my stories apart. When he was through editing I knew why he made the changes he did to articles written by this novice journalist. He had a way of getting his points across that made a lasting impression and his choice of class materials was excellent. I still have some of the books he required for his classes. I was not involved with the Daily Mississippian, as I should have been, and participation in his classes forced me to contribute to the newspaper. Some of his assignments moved me out of my comfort zone, but ultimately helped me mature and made me more productive. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to have him as one of my professors.
Note from Laurie Heavey
I’m very sorry to hear about Mr. Miller. I think my freshman class in 1980 was one of his first teaching experiences. Unfortunately I don’t have any memorable stories but he made an impression. Tommy Miller, Ed Meek and Dr. Hoar were my three best instructors.
Note from Sherry Lucas
I was in Tommy Miller’s first reporting class. As a teacher, he had great flair for rewarding the very thing he was trying to open our young eyes to in class: details, nuance and accuracy. After a pop quiz, he poured Dr Pepper over ice for the one student who knew that the soft drink’s name has no period. I was one of two who earned an apple - for correctly naming all seven of Snow White’s dwarfs.
Staff Writer and Columnist
Note from Lyn Heard McMillin
In the early 1980s, I had the good fortune of landing in Tommy Miller’s reporting class. From the beginning of the semester, it quickly became apparent that this was not an ordinary class, and Tommy Miller was not an ordinary teacher. Fresh from The Houston Chronicle, Mr. Miller brought real-world experience to our very sheltered environment that was Ole Miss and Oxford. Not one to be limited to the confines of the classroom, he often sent us out on interesting assignments and constantly encouraged us to see a bigger picture.
My favorite memory of Mr. Miller is of a lesson that he taught on trusting your facts and not allowing yourself to be distracted with false information. This began when Mr. Miller invited the entire class to his home for an end-of-semester party. The challenge was to discover exactly where he lived and to communicate clear directions to the rest of the class. We were divided into small groups and sent out on our mission to find his unpublished address and create our maps. Bonus credit was promised to the group that was first in turning in accurate directions, so all were eager to ace the assignment.
We knew that Mr. Miller lived out from Oxford in a rural setting, but we didn’t know much beyond that. Pooling our resources, we quickly realized that one of our group members worked at a local grocery store and had often observed Mr. Miller shopping there. Chances were high that Mr. Miller had applied for a store membership card, and a current address would have been required on the application. After a quick visit to the grocery store, we were successful in securing the coveted information. Address in hand, we quickly headed out into the country to locate the house.
After exiting the highway and finding the correct road, we were thrilled to finally reach several houses. As we slowly cruised by, we found the mailbox that matched the number on the store application. To our dismay, we looked in our rearview mirror and discovered that another group was following us. If we didn’t hurry, they were very likely to take credit for finding the house by turning in the information before we could.
With the other group close behind us, we drove a short distance and turned around. We then pulled over to construct our map and plan how we would reach campus before our competitors.
About this time, we spotted Mr. Miller driving down the road, seemingly oblivious that we were parked just a few hundred yards away. He turned into a driveway, stopped his car, retrieved the mail and newspaper, and proceeded up the hill to the garage. The only problem was that the driveway he drove up was next door to the house that had the address listed as his address at the grocery store. What to do? Go with the information we had gathered from a reliable source, or go with what seemed from all appearances to be his house?
Convinced that they had all the data they needed, the group that followed us wasted no time in taking off for campus. They were successful in being the first group to turn in their map. However, our group knew where our source had directed us, so we hung around to verify our information. After a few short minutes, our diligence paid off when Mr. Miller pulled out of his neighbor’s driveway and went up his own driveway and into the home that we had correctly identified.
Ultimately, we received the bonus credit by being the first to turn in an accurate map. Forever observant, Mr. Miller had seen us all as he drove home from work, and used the opportunity to teach an important lesson. I have always remembered to trust my facts, and have tried not to be distracted with false appearances. I will forever be grateful for this valuable lesson, and for the extra credit we earned that day.
Lyn Heard McMillin (’85)
Note from Lee Hancock
I stumbled into Tommy Miller’s advanced reporting class in the fall of ‘82. I soon realized that this lanky, bearded, slow-talking prof who deployed teddy bears and well-timed profanity with equal aplomb was going to change my life.
Within a few weeks, I had my first story on the Associated Press A wire, an obituary of Willie Morris’s Labrador retriever, Pete. Miller also brought me back to earth with my first important critique: he let me know that I had missed a bigger story by agreeing not to write that the dog was laid to rest in St. Peter’s Cemetery, beside William Faulkner’s beloved maid. Though that had been the condition of getting access to the graveside service, Tommy counseled that I might’ve found a way to get the better story without that compromise. It was my first lesson in the tradeoffs of journalism.
Thanks to Miller, I learned how to spell Dr Pepper and learned not to try to keep up with any member of the Baylor mafia around a bottle of Johnny Walker. After several late-night tutorials with those Baylor boys in St. Peter’s Cemetery, I came to know that William Faulkner did indeed rest better without that blasted streetlight. (When that mercury-vapor insult to literature was dispatched with a borrowed squirrel rifle, Miller did what any senior editor would: he assumed a look-out position at least two blocks away, swearing he was only trying to get the proper perspective and not preparing his get-away if the Oxford cops arrived. And his Baylor buddy and Houston Chronicle colleague did what any decent managing editor should: researched the replacement cost of a mercury-vapor light and mailed a personal check to the city of Oxford, along with a letter so impassioned that the city left the light dark for several years).
Miller kept standing lookout for my fledgling career. In my year as his student, we chronicled the appearance of the Klan and rising racial tensions over the use of the Rebel Flag at Ole Miss. One crazy night, when one of the biggest BMOCs filched an embarrassing story from the paste-up of page 1 of The Mississippian to try to keep it out of print, we members of Miller’s student posse rode forth from the Hoka in hot pursuit. After one of us (Dan Turner, as I recall) grabbed the offender from his frat house and frog-marched him into Farley’s basement for a late—night confessional interview, we banged out an even more embarrassing front-page story before the presses rolled. Tommy inspired such behavior. We believed that we could tackle any story & take on anyone, because Miller taught us how & told us we could.
Miller helped me get my first internship, urged me to take the permanent job offered two weeks later, and periodically threatened to hire me. He danced at my wedding and was literally the first person to welcome me when I drove into Texas for the first time. He gave me stringer gigs and helped me keep the faith as I scrambled to land a newspaper job in Texas and toasted when I hired on at the Dallas Morning News. Though we never did work for the same paper, & I sometimes went head-to-head with his reporters, a part of me always felt like I was working for Miller.
And part of me always will.
The Dallas Morning News