A Notre Dame Man for Others
Robert Miller wakes up every morning eager to get back to work. He rides a stationary bike and eats breakfast, which always includes a large green smoothie made of an apple, a pear, two bananas, and lots of kale. By 8:30, he is at his computer, shepherding the start-up company he launched last year.
Miller is not, however, some young entrepreneur fresh out of business school. He is a 94-year-old—“94-and-a-half,” he is quick to point out—former judge who could be spending his time in much more relaxing and age-typical fashion. But he refuses to slow down.
“I’ve never been so busy,” the decorated World War II veteran explains. Miller is passionate about solving problems. His latest cause is a personal one: helping elderly people who want to maintain their independence and dignity as they age. His new company, Rising Improvements, is developing products that, Miller hopes, will allow them to do just that.
It’s the latest chapter in a fascinating life, a nine-decades-and-counting long journey from the depths of the Great Depression and the decks of the USS Essex to the courtroom and, now, the office he has set up in his South Bend home. Through it all, two constants have remained: lots and lots of hard work and an unyielding desire to make a difference in the lives of those who need it.
A Father’s Example
Miller was born in 1920 in Wilkinson, a central Indiana town with a population of roughly 200 at the time. By Miller’s 9th birthday, the Great Depression had hit, and the family moved to Indianapolis so that his father could find more stable work.
“He got cleaned out,” Miller says. “I didn’t realize we were so poor because everybody that was around didn’t have any money either.”
Like many, the Miller family struggled badly. His father had accumulated a huge amount of debt. He found work traveling around Indiana selling Sherwin Williams paint, but it wasn’t enough. When Miller was 11, his father died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Doctors speculated that it was brought on by the enormous pressure of trying to pull his family out of poverty.
While Miller lost his father at a young age, he never forgot the example he set. Despite his own dire circumstances, his father remained a charitable man, always willing to lend a helping hand to someone in even greater need.
His father’s early death also meant Miller had to pitch in to help the family survive. “Everybody was trying to work any place they could,” he remembers. “That’s just the way we got by.”
At one point during high school, Miller had five jobs. The three maiden ladies next door had a craft card business, and Miller ran the printing press for 25 cents an hour. He worked as an usher at a local theatre for 15 cents an hour; once a week, he even got two free tickets. He parked cars at a parking lot downtown for 20 cents an hour—until he was fired for skinning a fender. His father’s former boss at the Sherwin Williams paint store gave him $1 dollar every Saturday morning to put paint on the shelves and sweep up the floor. And, finally, Miller sold Parker House Rolls, baked by his mother, at 25 cents for two dozen.
A fanatical work ethic was born.
A Helpful Horseman
Miller starred on the football field at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, helping to lead his team to the city championship. Notre Dame head coach Elmer Layden, who had risen to fame under Knute Rockne as one of the Four Horsemen, took notice. He offered the 192-pound offensive guard a scholarship, allowing Miller to attend college despite his family’s financial struggles.
Things didn’t go as planned in South Bend. Notre Dame’s offense called for its guards to pull and lead the running attack, and Miller wasn’t suited for the role. After one season, Layden offered to help him get a scholarship at Purdue or Ohio State, but Miller didn’t want to leave. Because of Notre Dame’s unique curriculum, transferring would mean starting over as a freshman, and Miller wanted to get back to his mother, whose health was deteriorating, as soon as he could earn a degree.
Layden offered to help Miller secure enough campus jobs that he wouldn’t have to pay any tuition despite no longer playing football. Miller rolled the lines on the campus tennis court, worked at the library, mopped the basement of South Dining Hall each morning in exchange for meals, and, most profitably, sold flowers outside Notre Dame Stadium before home football games. “If we could get them pinned on the gal before they asked how much, why they were 75 cents. If not, if they asked, they were 50 cents.”
Miller excelled in the classroom and was invited to join a new program in which he could receive an accounting degree and a law degree in six years. But war soon intervened.
Danger on the Pacific
Miller was in his senior year at Notre Dame when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. After finishing his undergraduate degree in commerce, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Before deploying to the Pacific, Miller was sent to Harvard Business School, which the Navy had temporarily taken over, to take M.B.A.-level classes to prepare him to oversee the business operations of a ship. But when he boarded the USS Essex, he was called upon to fill a different role.
The aircraft carrier was involved in some of the most intense air battles of the Pacific theater, and Miller was instructed to lead a unit in the gunnery department. For months, he was the battery officer on a quad 40 millimeter anti-aircraft gun. The greatest danger came from the Japanese kamikaze pilots, who attempted to sacrifice themselves by flying their planes directly into Allied ships.
The explosion from one of the kamikaze attacks left Miller wounded with contusions all over his body. He initially refused medical treatment in order to get the anti-aircraft guns back in running order. “Back then, when you’re 23, you bleed quick but you heal quick,” he says. “I did a lot of bleeding, but I had nothing broken.” Miller was awarded a Purple Heart in recognition of his wounds inflicted by the enemy.
A Passion for the Law
After the war, Miller returned to Notre Dame, earning his law degree in 1947. He opened a firm in South Bend with a law school classmate and, a few years later, struck out on his own. Miller found great success working in different areas, from representing corporations to doing work for rural utility companies.
In the early 1970’s, Miller was appointed a Superior Court Judge in St. Joseph County. He enjoyed the work, but found it emotionally challenging to preside over certain types of cases, especially issues of mental health and divorces involving young children.
After Miller left the bench, he returned to private practice. He remained an active attorney for more than 60 years, doing pro bono work for a variety of causes well into his 80s.
Reflecting on his successful legal career, Miller deflects credit to the education he received at his alma mater. “People say, ‘The judge is a self-made man.’ No way. I had more help than anybody I know of, and especially from Notre Dame.”
A Haunting Photograph
Six years ago, Miller came across a photograph in the South Bend Tribune that he couldn’t erase from his mind. It showed a homeless man sleeping in a wooden box in an abandoned building. His granddaughter, Amanda Miller, worked at South Bend’s renowned Center for the Homeless, so he knew that a chunk of the city’s homeless population was made up of fellow veterans.
Through his granddaughter, Miller set up a meeting with Steve Camilleri '94, '01 M.S., the center’s executive director, to discuss strategies for supporting Michiana’s homeless veterans. Out of that meeting, Miller’s Vets was born.
The first step was to build up the veterans’ self-worth. While they came from different generations and branches of the military, they had all gone through some form of basic training and learned how to march. So Miller outfitted them with proper military uniforms and started a color guard. After a couple of months of drills, the group debuted at South Bend’s West Side Memorial Day Parade in 2009. The eight homeless veterans won first place in the adult marching unit category, the first of many awards for Miller’s Vets.
Miller next turned to the challenge of what happens to homeless and impoverished veterans when they pass away.
He wrote a funeral program that includes traditional military honors, such as a 21 rifle salute, the ceremonial folding of an American flag, and the playing of taps. He recruited five local funeral homes to lend their services, and acquired 64 plots from the county in a separate section of a cemetery, an area now known as “Miller’s Vets Garden of Peace.” Miller’s Vets now funds and organizes funerals for any veteran in the area who cannot afford one. The program is called The Last Salute, and Miller has not missed a single funeral since it began.
He has also helped provide these homeless veterans with shelter. When Camilleri told him that a building near the downtown Center for the Homeless was for sale, Miller funded its purchase to provide a standalone facility for the veterans. The Robert L. Miller, Sr. Veterans Center was dedicated on Veterans Day in 2011. The facility provides housing for 24 veterans at a time. It’s been a huge success, as a remarkable 81 percent of its residents have found stable housing after living in the center. This fall, thanks to Miller’s continued generosity, the Center for the Homeless plans to open another building, the Miller’s Vets Recreation Center.
Camilleri says Miller’s greatest gift to these veterans has been his friendship. “He’s meant so much personally to these folks. He didn’t just put a program together and put a name on a building. He is involved in their lives. He’s wanted to get to know them. He’s had them over to his house for meals. … He is fully engaged and involved in their lives.”
Miller thinks he has benefited even more. “I sleep well at night. I know there are 24 guys that aren’t out there in the park, underneath the bridge, or in an abandoned building.”
A Business on the Rise
Miller, a father of five, is a widower, having lost both of his wives at relatively young ages. He resides with Eva Johnson, his nurse for the last 25 years, and his dog Rascal two miles from Notre Dame’s campus on a large property along Juday Creek. Despite his age, he does not want to move into an assisted living facility.
Last year, after having his shoulder replaced, Miller was told he wouldn’t have the strength to perform certain simple everyday tasks, like get himself up from a chair, for three to six months. Johnson, a petite woman, cannot lift him up on her own. The independent lifestyle Miller cherished was in jeopardy, and he racked his brain for a solution.
He called a friend and asked him to come over to help him build something. They connected two dowel rods with clothes line. Gripping one end, Miller leaned forward in his chair while Johnson held the other. He easily rose to his feet. Inspired, Miller improved his design with several subsequent prototypes. He marveled at his invention’s effectiveness and wondered who else could benefit from it.
“I got to thinking there’s a lot of people out there just like me,” Miller says. “And I decided…somebody ought to help them, and it might as well be me.”
He called on his daughter, Mindy Moore, to oversee the business side. Moore, an inventor in her own right, already had experience setting up a small business and selling products online. Miller then enlisted the help of an engineering firm at Notre Dame’s Innovation Park, which connected him with several Notre Dame engineering students who helped perfect Miller’s design.
Miller named the product The Pull Me Up and called the company Rising Improvements. The Pull Me Up is now available in two different sizes: 1 Hand and 2 Hands. The device is trademarked and the patent is pending. And Miller and Johnson are eager to demonstrate its effectiveness to anyone who’s interested.
In the few months since they made it available on Amazon.com, Rising Improvements has sold several hundred Pull Me Ups. When the company begins turning a profit, Miller won’t take any money for himself. He’s planning to give 10 percent directly to charity, and the rest will be divided among his five children.
In the meantime, Miller is busy developing more products to improve the lives and preserve the dignity of the elderly. He comes up with the ideas, from a device to help you get off the toilet to one to help you take your coat off, and then sends his sketches to the Notre Dame engineering students for implementation. Eventually, he wants to have at least five products available to seniors in need.
“That’s his whole mission now in life,” Moore says. “He wants to make life better for people.”
It’s the same trait he picked up from his father so many years ago during the Great Depression. It motivated him through the toughest times during World War II and guided him to establish an organization dedicated to inspiring and rehabilitating homeless veterans.
And it’s why each morning, after he’s exercised and had his green smoothie, Miller will sit down at his computer and throw himself once again into a day of hard work.