For longer than anyone can remember the Highland Park pecan tree stood at the crossroads of Armstrong, Preston Road and Lakeside. It had spent its youth growing in height when the late Margaret Crow and Margaret McDermott were just young gals. Over the decades it had weathered all types of storms, both natural and man-made. In late October the grand tree ended its reign as the symbol of its community.
So another reign came to an end Saturday when journalist Robert “Bob” Miller passed away at the age of 96. Like the tree, Bob had meant so much for generations of North Texans weathering all types of news, both natural and man-made.
He had started at The Dallas Morning News in 1951 writing obituaries at $52.50 a week and eventually began reporting for the paper that was in daily competition with its counterpart the Dallas Times Herald. In those days, his goal was to get the story out accurately and to beat the other side of the street. He didn’t have any grandiose plans of serving as a mentor for others and championing the efforts for the needy in North Texas.
But then those were the days when newsrooms were filled with the sound of stories being hammered out on manual typewriters by rewrite men, copy boys hustling about and cigarette smoke abounding.
It soon became apparent to the powers-that-be that Bob wasn’t your everyday reporter. He wasn’t confined to just covering assignments. Thanks to his God-given curiosity and his right-hand partner/wife Shirley Briggle Miller, he went beyond knowing names of people and places. He got to know their backstories and their six-degrees-of-separation.
Blending this knowledge with his journalistic genes, he rose through the newsroom ranks, becoming the DMN’s assistant managing editor overseeing a staff of reporters, copy editors and editors. He was the paper’s non-physical version of Lou Grant. Pity the poor first-day staffer who thought Bob was going to shepherd him/her through learning the ropes. If a cub reporter assigned to cover a trial asked, “Where is the courthouse?” Bob’s look of shock was enough to send the fledgling home to mommy. But it would also provide a chuckle among the newsroom old-timers, who recalled that same look when they had asked a similar question during their early tenure. But they also recognized the mischievous twinkle in his eyes that offered forgiving.
Once, when Neiman Marcus was holding its annual Fortnight Ball gala at the Fairmont benefiting UT Southwestern, comedian Jack Benny was to be the featured entertainer. At the last minute, though, Benny had to cancel. When Bob stepped away from the ballroom, he ran into the paper’s 20-something society writer. “Did you hear Benny canceled?” Bob asked. The writer proudly answered, “Yes, I was in the room when they examined him and he was having problems with his hands. They pulled three doctors from the ballroom to check him out, and they think he might be having a stroke.”
Silence. Bob gritted his teeth and asked, “Did you call the desk with that story?” The writer didn’t say anything. With eyes shut to avoid “the look,” she shook her head, “No.” Trying to stay calm, Bob escorted her to a nearby bank of payphones and told her to call it in. She grimaced and asked, “Do you have a dime?”
As gruff as he may have seemed to the new recruits, Bob also was a loyal defender. At a time when women were a minority in newsrooms, Carolyn Barta was covering Dallas City Hall. According to the policy of the day, if a woman got pregnant, she was fired. So the story goes that when Carolyn got pregnant, Bob “tried to protect Barta from that fate, hiding her pregnancy from his bosses as long as he could. He hired her back after her first son was born and also after her second.”
In 1985, when others were retiring, Bob’s journalistic career took a turn. He, then-DMN Business Editor Cheryl Hall and DMN editor Bob Mong decided the section would benefit from a column that was right up Bob’s alley. It dealt with the business of philanthropists and nonprofits. Seriously? When young journalists were cutting their teeth on computers hoping to be the next Woodward-Bernstein, the veteran reporter-editor was going to be covering the realm of the haves and have-nots?
But Bob fooled those naysayers. His column became the must-read by all levels of society. One high-powered executive admitted that Bob’s column was worth a million dollars to his educational institution.
In creating his new venture, Bob brought along his old ways. He had his self-made policies. Didn’t cover golf tournaments nor cover fundraisers that benefited only one religious group. It was a rare occasion when he would have lunch away from the office. New PR folks quickly learned that it took more than one attempt to get a press release past him. The first couple or three had evidently gotten lost in the mail, the fax machine messed up, etc.
They also found that Bob on the phone was just like Bob in the newsroom. It was his Miller Mumble. Lucky were those who could translate his conversations. They were a wealth of storied histories. Drop a name, an event or a place and Bob could reel off more information than a Google search engine.
When Miller filed his 8,504th column on July 1, 2015, he closed the books on a career that had spanned 64 years with The News.
Even after “retirement,” the 90-something Bob and his Shirley continued to make the rounds being celebrated with accolades and having dinners with friends. Why, just this October they went to the State Fair!
In hindsight, tornadoes that rarely hit Dallas proper played important landmarks in Bob’s life. One of Bob’s first journalistic highlights was covering the 1957 tornado that hit Oak Cliff. Sixty-two years later another tornado on Sunday, October 20, ended up damaging the Millers’ home, resulting in Bob’s health going downhill quickly.
We extend our condolences to the family, friends and those who benefited from Bob’s wisdom, talents, sense of humor and patience.