Sunday, April 11, 2010

William F. Miller, 73, Plain Dealer ethnic-affairs columnist, union activist

William F. Miller, who was best-known as the ethnic-affairs columnist at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, died August 3, 2009, at age 73, according to an obituary published at

Bill embraced the more than 80 ethnic-heritage groups he covered, and they returned the affection by inviting him to emcee and sing at their celebrations and bestowing honors on him, including Poland's Medal of Honor, the highest award the Polish government can give a civilian.

When he retired in February 2001 after 40 years as a Plain Dealer reporter and columnist, Bill continued writing a weekly column about the variety of ethnic components in Cleveland’s Melting Pot on a freelance basis through the end of 2001.

His refined and elegant manner and love of culture and the arts belied his blue-collar roots.

He not only covered labor for the Plain Dealer, he became deeply involved in union activities of The Newspaper Guild and was honored by his union brothers and sisters before he retired. His Guild membership started at a paper in his hometown of New Kensington, Pa., where he worked in his youth.

"Bill was proud to be a 50-year member of The Newspaper Guild, and we were proud to call him our union brother," said Scott Stephens, former Plain Dealer Unit Chairperson and a colleague of Miller's for 18 years. "He was a Guild stalwart who embodied the best qualities of trade unionism. He will be missed."

Dick Peery, a Plain Dealer and Newspaper Guild colleague who knew Bill much longer than Scott Stephens did, offered the following thoughts about Bill:

Because of Bill's many passions, he stands out for his major contributions to the life of the community. That made him different from most reporters.

He was, first of all, a top-notch reporter. He did not limit himself to the conventions of the craft by keeping a distance from his subjects for the sake of sterile objectivity. He had the courage to rub shoulders with the people he wrote about, infusing his writing with their emotions and perspectives despite criticism from smaller-minded purists.

The best example was how he combined his love for the theater with stories about the impending destruction of the four grand movie houses at Playhouse Square. While some of his colleagues wondered if his accounts were the self-serving work of a freeloader, Bill's recognition of the news value made him one of a half dozen people credited with saving the region's most important theater complex from the wrecking ball.

When I started at the Plain Dealer, Bill was the labor writer. The last true labor writer the paper had. His rolodex was stuffed with the home phone numbers of virtually every labor activist in Northeast Ohio.

He told me about covering a leading Teamster leader whose reputed mob connections made him a favorite whipping boy for newspaper, television and radio reporters. The day after Miller attended the Teamster picnic at Euclid Beach Park, the PD ran a picture of the leader sitting in a swing, holding a grandchild. He called Miller and asked him to come to his office immediately. The man said that was the first time he had been treated humanly in the news media and handed Miller an envelope stuffed with cash. Miller did not count the money, but simply handed it back and said, "All I want is for you to be honest with me and and let me know what is going on." He became one of Miller's most valued contacts.

Bill was equally thorough in covering the area's many ethnic communities. Organizations relied on him to let the public know about their dances and picnics. People planned their weekends after reading his Friday column. He didn't just write about their polka parties. He danced at as many as he could. A number of nationality groups adopted him as their "Man of the Year."

Most of all, Bill was passionate about human rights. He was an outspoken opponent of racial discrimination and a zealous advoate for women's equality. He joined the Newspaper Guild, the union that includes newsroom workers, when he was a teenager in New Kensington, Pa. He took leave from the Plain Dealer to serve as an international representative for the union in the 1960s. During a lengthy Plain Dealer strike in 1974, Bill worked so feverishly to see that pickets were in place, food was prepared and social services were available to members that he had to take a vacation to rest up when the strike was over.

Once he quit smoking in the 1970s, Bill zealously urged others to adopt his new life style of jogging and health food. At the start of each union meeting, Bill would offer a motion to divide the room between smokers and nonsmokers. At first, the motions were soundly defeated with laughter. Gradually, the number of people voting with him grew larger. One day the motion passed, and the room erupted in applause.

Robert Finn, retired Plain Dealer music critic, added: Bill's interest in the arts extended to singing the role of President Chester A. Arthur in a production of Douglas Moore's celebrated opera "The Ballad of Baby Doe" at the Willoughby School of Fine Arts (in the 1970s).

It's a short role, with only a few lines in one scene, but Bill sang it very well indeed -- and, as you can imagine, he looked every inch the big-shot President of the United States.

He boasted to me about this accomplishment as only Bill Miller could boast!

Bill Miller, a resident of Mentor, Ohio, received numerous honors from fellow journalists over the years. He was inducted into the Press Club of Cleveland 's Journalism Hall of Fame in November 2008. The Cleveland chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists presented him its Distinguished Service award in 1991.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich paid tribute to Bill in extension remarks on the floor of Congress when Bill received an award from the International Services Center of Cleveland in 1997 and when Bill received the German Service Cross of the Order of Merit in 2002. Bill was named to the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame's Trustees Honor Roll in 1999.

He served in the Army in the 1950s. He later received a bachelor’s degree in English from Kent State University.

Survivors include his wife, Marianne; and two sons, Mark and Billy. A memorial observance is being planned for September 2009.

For more about Bill, read the obituary written by Plain Dealer reorters, Grant Segall and Michael O’Malley or "Memories of Plain Dealer Veteran William F. Miller" on Bill Lucey's "The Morning Delivery" blog.

This obituary was originally posted on on April 4, 2009.

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