April 5, 2015
Duluth News Tribune
Child of Depression leaves $200,000 in gifts to Duluth schools, library
By Mike Creger
The 11-member Miller family lived on Courtland Street in Slab Town, the area of Duluth’s West End centered on 27th Avenue near the St. Louis Bay and known for its mix of poor families and panoply of nationalities.
Looking back from their 80s, two of the youngest of six brothers admit they were probably not as well off as others.
“We survived,” 80-year-old Wallace Miller said from his home in California’s Silicon Valley. He recalled the family using rhubarb as a food source to stay fed.
“We never lacked for entertainment,” said 88-year-old Sidney Miller from his home near New Orleans.
That’s because the boys entertained themselves on St. Louis Bay with makeshift sailing crafts and, in the winter, ice boats.
Frank Miller was a carpenter and overall handyman, who, along with his wife, Tena, tried to make things as normal for the family as possible. The nine children’s upbringing was marked by the Depression.
“We didn’t know if we would eat or not,” Wallace recalled.
Sidney said he was aware that they lived in one of the poorest sections of town, but he has “no regrets” about his early life in Duluth.
“He could do most anything,” he said of his father, and that kept them afloat.
Two months before the Wall Street crash of 1929, Jerome Miller was born, the couple’s seventh child. He tended to take after his father, a master with wood projects, art and gardening. It was Jerome who had the craft named J.C. Miller out on the water.
That experience would serve him well as he joined the Merchant Marine in 1946 at just age 16. Eventually, Sidney, who was three years older, and another brother would ply the Great Lakes and beyond and send money home.
“He learned the hard way,” Wallace said. He is the youngest Miller and still appreciates the sacrifice Jerome made in dropping out of Denfeld High School to support the family. Wallace finished at Denfeld and earned a baseball scholarship to Stanford University. Once there, his brother still took care of him.
“He knew I was missing meals,” Wallace said. Jerome wired money to California. “The guy was just amazing.”
After Jerome retired in the 1970s and ended up near his brother Sidney in Louisiana, he took care of his two nieces and sister-in-law while Sidney spent months-long stints at sea.
He shared with his nieces his self-taught love of learning. They would take trips to the library. He would show them his crossbred roses and exacting artwork drawn from pictures he took.
“He was a second father,” Tena Scallan said of her uncle from her Florida home. “He taught us a whole lot about life.”
Jerome Miller died last fall at age 85. Scallan became the executor of his estate. Born to the Depression, Jerome ended up making money on the stock market and had plenty to dole out through his will.
First on the list was an homage to his childhood home. Miller left $100,000 to the Duluth Public Library and $100,000 to the school district. Both entities learned of the gift this past winter.
“Holy Toledo,” Wallace said of hearing the news. His brother’s giving continued to the end, he said.
Sidney said he wasn’t surprised. The two were close, and sometimes talked about the lessons they’d learned in Duluth and the fondness for their childhood home.
“He had a soft spot for the town,” Sidney said.
The Miller family scattered as they grew up and left the nest. Just one brother remained in Duluth. The only family reunions Wallace and Sidney can recall were coming home for their parents’ funerals in the 1970s. Still, they kept in contact by phone.
Jerome’s hearing wasn’t so good in the end, Wallace said. He had health problems that he kept “under wraps,” Sidney said.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina knocked both brothers out of their homes. While Sidney eventually returned to Slidell, La., Jerome stayed in Columbus, Miss., where he died Sept. 29.
The school district plans to honor Miller and his hands-on skills by funneling the donation toward career and technical education programs.
Scallan said her uncle had hoped the library would use its donation for a rose garden or a dedicated children’s center. Carla Powers, the library system manager, said its too early to know what will be done with the money. It’s a rare gift, she said.
Scallan is proud to know her uncle left such a legacy. Despite his limited time in Duluth, it was here where he gained all of his life’s skills, she said. “He loved where he grew up.”
Sidney does as well, although he’s happy to have not shoveled snow since his childhood. He still subscribes to the News Tribune.
Perhaps Wallace explained best just what Jerome was thinking when he wrote the $200,000 gift to Duluth in his will. He’s come back for Denfeld reunions but, like his brothers, has few personal connections remaining to his hometown.
“I still dream of Duluth,” Wallace said.
Scallan recalled what “Uncle Jerry” said to her as they went on library trips twice a week in Louisiana.
“He once said ‘Going to the library is like going to sea. Your mind can explore to your heart’s content.’ ”