The Inspiring Name Behind Midland’s New Miller Hall

The Inspiring Name Behind Midland’s New Miller Hall

Thursday, October 31, 2019

James Miller ’52 was killed in a car crash late one afternoon in 1962. As tragic as all unexpected deaths are, his hit the Fremont community especially hard. Still, despite being cut short, the legacy of James Miller, and his wife Donna, has carried on. And as powerful as his short life was, the Miller name has grown with time, inspiring, providing leadership, and giving students new opportunities to have their own Midland experience.

When he reflects on his uncle’s memory, James’ nephew, Dean Olson, recalls how quickly James was able to impact the world around him.

Even before finishing school at Midland in 1952, James excelled as a leader. At Midland he was a standout athlete, lettering four years as a basketball player. In fact, his athleticism came so naturally, he was able to join the Midland football team without playing organized high school football prior to college. He jumped at leadership opportunities in college, serving as class president, student council president, and president of the dormitory board.

He used his involvement and Midland education to springboard into Georgetown University’s law program. In fashion fitting to his legacy, he came back to Fremont after graduation, jumping into the community with both feet.

“You would say he was a rising star in the community as a young professional, lawyer, and a businessman and community leader – all at a very young age,” recalls Olson.

In Fremont, he immersed himself in leadership positions. In addition to practicing law, he was elected Justice of the Peace. He was later named President of the City Council and served as vice president of the YMCA board of directors. In 1961 he was recognized as one of three outstanding young men of the year by Nebraska Junior Chamber of Commerce.

With all of that, somehow, he also found time to teach.

As an adjunct professor at Midland, he was known for his passion-driven ability to bring out the best in his students. His own enthusiasm was imprinted in his teaching style, and as he paced the classroom, striding athletically and sometimes waving his arms to express a point, he was admirably referred to as “Jungle Jim” by adoring students.

At the same time, his wife, Donna, was leading the community as a teacher at Clarkson Elementary in Fremont. The pair was married in 1957, and they rapidly became prominent young leaders in the area.

Then, one Sunday afternoon in July, while driving near Valley, James and Donna’s car collided with a cattle truck. Jim was killed instantly. He was just 30 when he died.

Easily, the legacy of James and Donna Miller could have stopped there. It didn’t. Shortly after, a scholarship fund was set up in James’ name. The endowment grew and was given to students at Midland who wanted to pursue law careers. It would result in bright new chances for students in generations to come.

For those who knew him, his legacy sprouted into inspiration. Through the scholarship and his memory, the Miller name became a beacon for young students who wanted to build careers in law.

Likewise, for his nephew, the memory of his solidarity lit a path well after James’ untimely death.

“He was always there,” says Olson. “In one way or another as a guiding star, a mentor, like an older brother. I’m sure my decision to go to law school, the example he set, must have been a factor.”

Donna drew on the strength of James’ memory also. She overcame serious injuries from the car wreck herself. She pushed on, later earning her master’s degree in education. She moved to California and taught elementary children for nearly 30 years. Donna continued to lead children until her retirement in 1995. She passed away in Fremont last January at the age of 82.

Now, the pair’s legacy will continue to shine even brighter. Recently, decades since their first connection with the university, the two donated a generous gift to lay the foundation for Midland’s newest campus addition – a revamped, experience-centered dorm. In their honor, Midland has announced it will dedicate the new residence hall, Miller Hall, to James and Donna.

The new Miller Hall will provide Midland students with nearly 100 beds and suite-style rooms which are equipped with a kitchen, shared bathroom, and private bedrooms. It will replicate the shape of the former Men’s Memorial Hall, but the renovated space will put a fresh focus on community, interaction, and connection. The co-ed, sophomore residence hall will feature new lounges, laundry rooms, and designated study rooms.

Fitting to the active, involved images James and Donna promoted through their lives, the building taking their name is part of an even broader, $50 million initiative to grow out the Midland student experience.

Olson says he sees the naming of Miller Hall as a powerful tribute to James and Donna’s lives.

“It just took my breath away, and I’m sure with all of the connections that Jim and our family had and have with Midland, I’m sure Jim would have reacted the same way,” Olson says, recalling first hearing of the naming of Miller Hall. “I was almost speechless.”

Construction on Midland’s Miller Hall is set to begin in early spring of 2019. It is expected to be completed by fall of 2020.