In the 23 St. Croix Confidential columns I've written for Hudson Patch since its launch a year ago, one "source" appeared in seven of my columns, even though he died before Patch ever came on the scene. He'll likely be a source for many more writers of Hudson history; if you're "old Hudson" you know this name very well, and it's likely you knew the man himself quite well too.
A few weeks back I managed to get myself invited to the annual Willis H. Miller potluck, held by staff each year on his birthday since his death in 2008. Miller, who lived his life in Hudson, worked at the newspaper since his graduation from St. Olaf College in 1940, and eventually became owner and publisher.
He retired a few times after several sales of the newspaper, but he continued working as a historian and obituary writer until a few days before his death. His absence from work one day brought Star-Observer editor Doug Stohlberg over to his apartment to find the mentor with whom he’d worked side-by-side for some 35 years on the floor from a stroke. He died a few days later at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, with Stohlberg by his side. I felt lucky to be able to say "goodbye" and "thanks" to him at Regions, although he lay unconscious.
Star-Observer staff reporter Meg Heaton forewarned me of potluck protocol: "Just don't bring olives." A can of olives was Miller's regular contribution to potlucks at the newspaper and a source for much ribbing of the famously frugal man who bought his shirts by the pound at the Goodwill outlet in St. Paul yet left a record-setting $1.07 million scholarship gift to UW-River Falls in his will and numerous philanthropic donations to scores of other organizations.
Heaton said Miller always told her son Corey to keep his eyes on the ground for dropped change and to check every phone booth coin drop. “A few years back Corey told Willis that he felt bad for him because there weren’t any phone booths anymore to check for change. Corey said, ‘There goes one stream of revenue for you, Willis.’”
Throughout the Star-Observer offices you'll see vestiges of Miller, from a photo of him with President Lyndon B. Johnson, a painting of Miller in front of the old Star-Observer building on Walnut Street, to the original artwork for his column that ran for years, "Along Our Street With Willy." Heaton occupies his old office, and has left much of the items—wooden desk and pictures—intact.
At the potluck, Star-Observer staff shared some of their memories, including their collective inheritance of a large collection of souvenir spoons from all over the world, gathered on Miller's extensive travels.
Heaton said: "Whenever my kids would see him, they'd ask, 'Willis, tell us about your favorite place.' Eventually he would say, 'Don't you kids remember? I tell you every year, it's Iran!' They just loved hearing his travel stories."
Editorial staffer Alice Urban said her kids shared fond memories of visits with Miller as well. "They were always excited when he'd visit and say, 'Mom, when is Willis the man who looks like a boy coming over?'”
Front office staffer Maggie Hall said many knew Willis was a resale store scout who collected everything and anything. Much of what he found he donated to places such as the Smithsonian Institution, Harvard and Yale universities, the Wisconsin and Minnesota historical societies, and local historical organizations such as the St. Croix County Historical Society, which he helped establish.
He also donated scores of valuable historical materials to the Area Research Center and Archives at UWRF and the . Probably his most important gifts, Hall said, are his daily journals, written since the 1930s and housed at the UWRF archives, plus his Hudson Area Biographical Index, which garnered him a Distinguished Service Award from the Federation of Genealogical Societies. It’s a comprehensive listing of names and information on some 50,000 Hudsonites available at the library’s History Room.
Miller’s biography reads like a who’s who of the Upper Midwest. I wrote a feature for the UWRF alumni magazine about his posthumous gift plus a cover story on him over a decade ago for Wisconsin West magazine, and quoted him in publications from the Chicago Tribune to Minnesota Monthly over the years. His self-written 2,000-word obituary that appeared in the Hudson Star-Observer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press says it all.
“His one piece of advice to us was write your own obituary,” Heaton said. Hall quipped: “But he’d always tell us in writing obituaries, don’t write ‘passed away’ or ‘made a celestial departure’—you just plain die."
All my life I recall my mom saying what a stellar man he was, and they remained friends until her death in 1999. I received my first collegiate scholarship from Miller and the Star-Observer back in the 1980s.
After getting the scholarship, I had the pleasure of dining with my mom and Miller at the River’s Edge Supper Club in Somerset and he was so generous in supplying me with story ideas—such as my ongoing foray into the history of Wisconsin supper clubs, which started at that very dinner. When my mother died, I received a touching letter from him while he was at his annual winter sojourn in Puerto Vallarta.
In addition to his legendary philanthropic impact to many area organizations, Miller’s historical stewardship is a fantastic legacy for the people in the St. Croix Valley and beyond. I only wish he’d been around the past year to have read my column, share his advice, point me toward sources and gently correct errors.
Stohlberg said there was one thing the Star-Observer family did not know about Miller, who was so vigilant about history and genealogy, that was revealed at his funeral. “We knew he was an only child. But we discovered that he was adopted by his parents, and he had some brothers and a niece that he had made contact with, probably after his mother’s death. He had never mentioned this. It was pretty surprising.”
That’s one story that never made it into the dozens of historical books he authored. Miller’s last book, “Stories of Old Hudson” can be purchased the Star-Observer office for $9.95. “Limited copies are still available,” Hall said.