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River Valley Will Miss its Scrapyard Poet

September 16, 1989

You could say that Morrie Miller was a bear of a man but you'd only say that if the bear you had in mind was Gentle Ben. Morrie was a friendly giant who towered over other men and had the build and the athletic grace of an NFL linebacker. Give him a sword and shield and — with his curly locks and his powerful frame — he would've looked like a proud Jewish warrior right out of a Biblical epic. But underneath all those muscles was the soul of a happy poet.

Morrie Miller was the only doctor of education I've ever known who made a living running a scrapyard. Most people don't prepare for a career crushing wrecked automobiles by studying for a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. But Morrie made it work for him when he returned from the groves of academia to his family's salvage yard in Winona. It might not have been Morrie's first choice, but choice had little to do with it: His mother needed help running the business.

Morrie put away his professor's sweaters and put on his work boots and his hard hat. He never looked back, but the university's loss was Winona's gain. Never has there been a more erudite scrap man.

He showed me around the yard once, explaining how this or that machine could shred how many tons of steel in how many minutes. He had bemused affection for the scrap business and when he explained how it worked, he could make it sound like the most fascinating business on Earth. Then he'd smile the big, goofy smile that was his trademark and let you know he really didn't take scrap — or himself — too seriously.

The scrapyard was the family business and it didn't have to be prestigious. It supported the family, it was honest work and it was good enough for Morrie. But Morrie's soul could not be contained behind the fences of any scrapyard.

Morrie was an enthusiast who loved life and lived the life he loved. He liked to talk about politics and things that were going on in the world and his mind was open to new ideas as it was inquisitive. He could play touch football with the zest of a fraternity boy and he knew how to party like one, too. He made friends fast and they often remained fast friends.

Morrie liked to take his friends on tours of old Winona, pointing out the places where speakeasies and bordellos operated when Winona was less sedate than it is today. He would tell the city's story in a can-you-believe-it? tone of voice that conveyed his own charming naivete along with the history.

More than most people in an age when loyalty to a place is out of fashion, Morrie Miller's life was rooted in a place: in Winona and along the bluff-lined valley of the Mississippi.

It is impossible to think of Morrie Miller without conjuring up the images of the river. Morrie loved the river. He lived at its edge, the river flowing just outside his back door and the wooded bluffs across the channel rising in splendor before him. Morrie took his tranquility from the unceasing rhythm and power of the Mississippi and let himself be enchanted by its moods. Often, he would jog to the crest of the bluffs that loomed up behind his house and gaze down on what he considered the cradle of God's loveliness in Minnesota.

After he met Cindy Ferguson, Morrie chose to announce their marriage by sharing his passion for the river with all of the couple's friends. One exquisite May evening, when the setting sun set fire to the river valley, Morrie and Cindy chartered a paddle-wheeler to carry their celebration along the river, casting their pledge and the promise of their lives together on the flowing waters.

It was a beautiful voyage. But for Morrie, it is over. He died Wednesday at 45, his proud athlete's body worn out by a struggle with a rare form of cancer. Behind him, at the river's edge, he leaves Cindy and two young children, Sarah and Jacob.

It's no use wondering why bad things happen to good people. Too often, they do. Morrie knew that. So when a friend dies, all you can do is offer your prayers. That, and celebrate the goodness that was in him and the magic and love that a person like Morrie shared with those whose lives he touched.

They will miss Morrie Miller along the banks of the Mississippi, and they will miss his humor and his gentleness in the scrapyard. I will miss him, too.

by Nick Coleman - Star Tribune

 

Honoring a Scrap Yard Philosopher by Raising Cash
for School Athletics

September 16, 2005

My friend Morrie Miller died in 1989. By the Hebrew calendar, today is his Yahrzeit, the commemoration of his death, when his memory will be kept alive through prayers, fasting and the lighting of candles.

On Sunday comes the golf tournament. That's not part of Jewish tradition, but it is a perfect fit for Morrie's legacy. Morrie was a gentle giant with a Ph.D in education from the University of Minnesota who gave up a promising teaching career to help his mother run the family scrap yard in Winona.

He was the only professor I ever knew who looked good in work boots and could talk about the comic contradictions of life while shredding steel: a scrap yard philosopher whose mind was full of curiosity and who kept himself happy by cracking wise.

He died too young, of cancer, but never stopped with the jokes, and I can imagine him finding much self-deprecating humor in this weekend's juxtaposition - honoring him from the Yahrzeit to the golf course.

Still, the Morrie Miller Memorial Golf Tournament at the Cedar Valley Golf Course in Winona is a fitting tribute to a man whose easy smile and constant kindness disguised his athletic prowess and a fierce connection to his hometown. In Morrie's name, they will raise enough money to keep the winter and spring high school sports programs alive in a town of 30,000.

Beset by budget shortfalls, the Winona school board planned to save $176,000 by eliminating winter and spring sports. Morrie was a triple threat for the Winona Winhawks in the early 1960s, starring at football (for years, he held the record for longest run from scrimmage for a touchdown), and also at basketball and track.

When they heard about the cuts, Morrie's cousin, Hugh, and Morrie's brother, Jerry, who has been Winona's mayor for eight years, came up with an idea: If they could find $120,000 for athletics, could the School District find the rest? "Extracurricular activities are too important to just sit and do nothing," Jerry Miller says. "That was unacceptable."

The tournament will be exceptional. At this point, it looks like it will exceed its goals: Net proceeds are expected to be close to $160,000.

This is actually the second annual tournament to honor Morrie. The first was held last year, in the hopes of raising $25,000. In a wonderful tribute to Morrie, it wound up raising $80,000 to support the city's 500 teenage athletes (public and nonpublic) and to develop a strength and conditioning program and a youth football program named for Morrie.

With even bigger budget challenges facing the schools this year, Sunday's second "Morrie" has become a crusade to help preserve Winona's traditions and culture.

Morrie wouldn't laugh at that. He would be honored.At a time when the country has had to fall back on charity to pick up the pieces in the wake of a total government meltdown, it is no surprise that things look much the same in small-town America. After years of cost-cutting and false economies, the fabric of life is starting to unravel.

Winona had to cut its street maintenance program, and has $40 million in unfunded street construction needs. The School District is strapped for cash and hopes to get a three-pronged funding proposal approved in a referendum this fall. And, as everywhere, the taxpayers keep getting nickeled and dimed at every turn to pay for things that used to come out of their taxes.

"I'm putting on my mayor's hat now," says Mayor Miller, a moderate who still works at the Miller family scrap yard. "We need a Marshall Plan for this country. Our roads, our schools, our infrastructure — it's all deteriorating. This is going on all around the state and country. Instead of waiting for our grandkids to do it, why aren't we starting to do it now?"

Fortunately, the flood dikes that protect Winona from the Mississippi River were built in the 1980s, when federal aid covered most of the cost. If they had to be built today, the city couldn't afford them, and they could end up as leaky as New Orleans' neglected levees.

Problems such as these just make it even more important that we light candles to honor the Morrie Millers of our world. And that we get teed off in their memory.

by Nick Coleman - Star Tribune

 

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