Newsman Gene Miller, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, dies
BY MARTIN MERZER
This is one of the last things Gene Miller wrote. We rarely re-wrote Gene and we certainly are not going to now. He died Friday.
Gene worked at The Herald for 48 years as a reporter and editor. His reporting saved at least two lives, won two Pulitzer Prizes and served this community.
He was the soul and the conscience of our newsroom, a somber place the day he died.
He coached novice reporters. He turned butter-fingered writers into prize winners. He challenged senior editors when he thought they were wrong, which was pretty often.
So, here is one of the last things Gene wrote. We changed nothing. We only filled in the spaces he left for age, day, place and cause.
Gene Edward Miller, 76, newspaperman, died Friday morning at his home near South Miami. Cause: cancer, the family said.
Self-portrait: Born in Evansville, Indiana, Sept. 16, 1928. Pre-kindergarten firebug. Hid under bed as firemen from Engine 15 extinguished grass fire. Cut first day of basketball tryout, Bosse High.
Oboist, gold medal (plated). Indiana University, '50, AB journalism, where purchased for 4 cents The Chicago Tribune's ''Dewey Beats Truman.'' Never again, right? Overpaid at $50 a week at first newspaper job, The Journal-Gazette, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1950.
Secret agent in Army Counter Intelligence Corps, 1951-53. On surveillance, forgot where parked car.
Fired from The Wall Street Journal in 1954 for lacking respect for price of crude cottonseed oil. Reporter on The News Leader, Richmond, Virginia, 1954-57. Departed after motorist failed to pay 5 cent toll and guard shot at him. Managing editor didn't think it was news because publisher and his neighbors owned the bridge.
Reporter and editor at The Miami Herald from 1957 to 2001 until tax-deferred buyout from Knight Ridder ($287,365.28), then contracted as a newsroom ``vendor.''
Over the years: Everything from the JFK assassination to Elián with the presidential follies in between, Nixonian Watergate to Clintonian Starr Report.
At the factory on the bay, silkpursed the ears of sows, mountained molehills, thumbed dikes, and unscrewed things when things got screwed up.
Covered: Yarmouth Castle fire, Birmingham and MLK, Murf-the-Surf, Bluebelle, Beatles, Clay-Liston, Candy Mossler, Mackle kidnapping, Apollo, Chappaquidick, Kent State, Dolphins Perfect Season, Three Mile Island, Patty Hearst, My Lai and Lt. Calley, Attica, Elvis, Ted Bundy, Gary Gilmore, Guyana suicides, McDuffie, George Wallace, Larry Flynt, Dangerous Doctors, assorted riots and airline crashes, hurricanes from Donna to Andrew, Fountain Valley massacre, some of which seemed important at the time.
Made FBI's ''no contact'' list. Pulitzer Prizes for malfunctions of justice, common enough in Florida: Joe Shea and Mary Katherin Hampton in 1967 and Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee in 1976.
From the citation: ``. . . for persistent and courageous reporting over eight and one-half years that led to the exoneration and release of two men who had twice been tried for murder and wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Florida.''
Son Tom, a smart aleck, asked, ``Know why you have two, Dad? Because everyone else gets a good job after the first.''
Editor for two more, Edna Buchanan in 1986 and Sydney Freedberg in 1991. Peripheral contributor: 1993 and 1999.
Accolades: Heywood Broun, National Headliners, George Polk, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert F. Kennedy, Florida Bar, and Honorary LL.D, Indiana University.
Married 41 years to Electra Yphantis (1923-1993), Bostonian, Greek, Harvard and Johns Hopkins, and begat four children, Janet Nostro, Theresa Miller, Thomas Raphael, Robin Travis. Eight grandchildren.
In 1998, married Caroline Heck, federal prosecutor, University of Chicago and Harvard Law, mother of Daniel.
Along the way: Nieman Fellowship; couple of out-of-print books (83 Hours Till Dawn and Invitation to a Lynching); and a successful copyright infringement lawsuit against Universal Pictures, the scoundrels.
Swam a thousand yards daily with the grace and beauty of a floating log. Heart beat so slow pacemaker installed. For sexual escapades, see addenda.
That was how Gene ended his own obituary.
He called himself a ''dinosaur,'' and in a way he was.
As you can tell from his candor in the item above, he didn't need a master's degree or focus group to tell him what to put in the newspaper.
His philosophy: Put everything in the newspaper, unvarnished. Just ask questions, write down the answers and put them in the newspaper. Pretty simple.
Gene's first byline appeared in The Herald on Nov. 9, 1957, the day after he came to work. In that story, a BBC executive said, ''There is no substitute for news.'' It became Gene's creed.
''Publish! Journalistic cowardliness and/or soft-headedness is as evil as censorship and is just as harmful to a free society,'' Gene wrote in 1984 when a Herald editor made the mistake of sending him a questionnaire about dicey journalistic situations.
Gene served for many years as The Herald's associate editor for reporting. He was a thunderstorm of story ideas, a bolt of lightning here, a burst of thunder there, a sudden shower on the other side of the room.
He read The Herald, every inch of it, every day.
He loathed the unasked question or unexplored angle. He lamented the inelegant phrase or absent detail. He lavished praise on a job well done.
Reporters working a tough story one day often came in early the next, hoping to hear him bellow, ``Good copy, champion!''
An example of his own championship copy, from Nov. 14, 1965, page 1A, about a passenger ship in trouble:
The moment before she vanished, the Yarmouth Castle burned in an ungodly inferno, as if in a circle of fire from hell itself.
''What's keeping her afloat?'' our pilot asked.
Then abruptly and suddenly, within 40 seconds, the flat ocean surface took its prey.
''Gene, the master wordsmith, edited me for a decade,'' Joan Fleischman, who writes The Herald's Talk of Our Town column, said Friday. ``He taught me that no detail is too small, and every story can be trimmed to keep it tight and bright.''
This past Memorial Day, as Gene's health diminished, Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler lured him to the newsroom for a small ceremony, which is how Gene wanted it. There and then, the room in which twice-a-day news meetings are conducted was named The Gene Miller Conference Room.
Gene's first Pulitzer came in 1967 for two investigations that freed from prison Shea and Hampton, each convicted of separate murders. They were innocent, and they got out because of Gene's dogged reporting.
His second Pulitzer was even more noteworthy. It came in 1976 after eight years of reporting about the case of two Death Row inmates, Pitts and Lee.
The two black men were charged in 1963 with the murders of two white gas station attendants in the Florida Panhandle town of Port St. Joe.
The cops had no evidence, so they beat confessions out of the pair. As a result, Pitts and Lee were sentenced to death on Aug. 28, 1963.
Pitts, about to be led away in shackles, stopped to hug his mother. ''I didn't do it,'' he sobbed. ``I didn't do it.''
A third man ended up confessing, and polygraph expert Warren Holmes brought the case to Gene's attention. During the next eight years, The Herald published 130 articles about the case. Gene wrote nearly all of them.
Ultimately, Robert Shevin, then Florida's attorney general, and Reubin Askew, the governor, read a collection of the stories. They also read the proofs of Gene's book about the case, Invitation to a Lynching.
In 1975, they freed Pitts and Lee.
Dec. 19, 1975, Page 1A, by Gene Miller:
RAIFORD, Fla. -- At 12:15 p.m. Thursday, the usual command crackled over the prison speaker: ''Count time. All inmates on the floor with the door locked.'' Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee didn't move.
They sat in a borrowed office at Florida State Prison and waited patiently as the last 24 hours of 12 lost years dragged to an end.
Patience they have learned since the lost years began on a hot summer night in 1963, when they drove into a Mo-Jo gas station in the Florida Panhandle.
''Gas 23.9,'' the sign said.
Gene's work also produced considerable reaction in Port St. Joe. In 1975, a relative of one of the victims sucker-punched Gene in the mouth as he walked out of the courthouse.
He had many other adventures and many other triumphs, and his work often brought him into contact with literary, political and other stars.
He counted among his friends and close acquaintances writers John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, Calvin Trillin and Tom Harris, many judges and lawyers, the late Ann Bishop of WPLG-ABC 10, and recent gubernatorial candidate Janet Reno. Her late father, Henry Reno, was a Herald police reporter. Her late mother, Jane, was a feature writer for the Miami News.
After Bill Clinton was elected president, his first two choices for attorney general struck out because they violated income tax or immigration laws when they employed household help.
When the White House turned to Reno, Miller helpfully offered: ``If anyone in Washington inquires, I can testify that no maid has been inside your house in 20 years.''
In his later years, Gene often served The Herald as a phantom rewrite man, the person desperate editors turned to when their computer screens seemed to be displaying a story inside out or upside down.
In the end, his name was nowhere near the story, but his work made that story approachable, comprehensible, maybe even a touch entertaining.
He also was a writing coach. Reporters who couldn't write their names on paper bags came out of his office a day or a week or a month later with fingers like Hemingway's.
He taught them to penetrate quickly to the heart of the matter or the person under examination.
He taught them to write in crisp, colorful, declarative sentences.
He taught them to invest a moment or three and reexamine every word, probing for a more active verb, a more vivid description.
Then, when he and the writer had the story right where they wanted it, Gene shielded it from meddlesome editors by typing this warning atop it: ``any changes, see gene miller please.''
Everyone, writer and editor, got the message.
Gene leaves his wife, Caroline Heck Miller, four children, one step-son, eight grandchildren and a universe of close friends, grateful colleagues, better reporters and writers, and more informed readers.
A memorial service will be scheduled for next week.
In all likelihood, many colorful stories will be told.
Published in the Miami Herald on June 17, 2005