Willis Harry Miller

Miller, Willis Harry St. Croix Co. Historian 68-year Newspaperman died early Sunday, Nov. 16, at Regions Hospital in St. Paul at the age of 89. He had suffered a stroke at home two days earlier. He was born Nov. 28, 1918, in Iowa City, Iowa, the son of Harry Willis and Ida May (Day) Miller. He spent his first years in Watertown, S.D., and later St. Paul, before coming with his parents to Hudson in 1922. The Miller's first home in Hudson was at 1416 Third St., a rented house of 14 rooms, owned by Dr. Laurence P. and Laura (Hochstein) Mayer, their next door neighbors. The rent was $25 per month. In the fall of 1923 he started kindergarten in the lower level of the "old" high school building, corner of Fourth and Oak streets (razed in 1924). Later he was among the first students who attended the then-new Fourth Street Elementary School. In 1936 he graduated from Hudson High School, where he was active in debate, orchestra and vocal ensembles. He attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, and in 1940 received a bachelor of arts degree with a major in history. While in college he was a member of the renowned St. Olaf Choir, under the direction of the legendary founder/director F. Melius Christiansen. He was also a student of the eminent historian, Dr. Agnes M. Larson, an authority on the lumbering industry in Minnesota. During his college years, to supplement his income, he was a library aide and did archival work for the Norwegian American Historical Association. While there he assisted the noted historian/educator, Dr. Theodore Blegen, of the University of Minnesota, who was then completing his monumental book on the Norwegian migration to America. Later, in 1957, Miller was president of the St. Olaf College Alumni Association. Though trained to be a teacher, Miller took his first job in August 1940 with the Star-Observer, the weekly Hudson newspaper, owned by Clarence J. Reiter. The paper's circulation then was under 1,000 subscribers. In this new job, which was six days a week, he wrote local news, sold advertisements, did the bookkeeping and billing, covered civic meetings, operated the mailer and subscription list and wrote a personal column, "Along Our Street," that was a weekly feature for more than 40 years. In his first years at the newspaper, he hand-carried the statements to advertising customers in the downtown area to save on postage. Another daily ritual was sweeping out the front office. Not able to afford a car, he rode a bicycle back and forth to work daily for 12 years. His first paycheck was at $11 a week, and a month later that figure was raised to $15. To enhance his finances he was a stringer for the Milwaukee Sentinel, sang at funerals (where the fee was $3) and did singing telegrams for Western Union at 50 cents a song. In August 1952, C.J. Reiter sold the Hudson Star-Observer to Yvette H. Ward, wife of millionaire Charles A. Ward, president of Brown & Bigelow, a longtime resident of Hudson. Mrs. Ward became publisher of the newspaper, and immediately completely modernized and remodeled the printing plant, then located at 112 Walnut St. At this time Miller became editor and general manager of the business. In 1958 Yvette Ward, after six years of ownership, decided to sell the Star-Observer. It was then Miller wasted no time forming a corporation of local investors and purchased the Star-Observer. In the new corporation, he became publisher, president and treasurer, positions he held for the next quarter century. After more than 40 years with the newspaper, in the early 1980s, Miller partially retired, and sold much of his interest in the company to Steven A. Keller, who became president in 1984. Miller, though retired, continued to work at the paper on a part-time basis and wrote articles and a popular column, "Historic Hudson," for the next 15 years. The Star-Observer Publishing Company was sold in 1986 to the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle Publishing Company, and Jay V. Griggs was named publisher. Griggs was succeeded by Steven N. Dzubay in 1995. The Red Wing group sold the Star-Observer as part of a deal with the Fargo Forum in April 2001. In 2004, Miller was elected to the Wisconsin Newspaper Hall of Fame. One of Miller's main contributions to Hudson was the role he played with Genevieve Cline Day, as founders in 1947 of the St. Croix County Historical Society. He served as its first secretary and was later president. The society owns and operates the historic Octagon House and Museum complex in Hudson. Another of his contributions was the founding and developing of the Hudson Area Biographical Index at the office of the Star-Observer. This is a compilation of some 200,000 names and information about Hudsonites, living and deceased, gleaned from searching the old Star-Observer and other sources dating back to the 19th century. This compilation has attracted researchers, historians and genealogists throughout the area and nation. For more than 30 years, during his annual vacations, he traveled throughout the world and wrote about it in the pages of the Star-Observer. From 1984 and into this century, he had spent a portion of his winters in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. In his long residency in Hudson, he lived at five addresses: (1) 1416 Third St., (2) 1110 Fifth St., (3) 1029 Fourth St., (4) 1127 Fourth St., and (5) 606 Third St. During the administration of Hudson Mayor Harold Krager, in 1966, Miller was appointed to the original Hudson Housing Authority that operates Croix View Apartments, 1015 Second St. He served 27 years on the commission, 16 years of which he was its president and chairman. He retired from HHA in 1993. To honor Miller, the Hudson City Council, with John Breault as mayor, approved the name of "Willis Miller Drive" in the St. Croix Business Park in February 2004. The street runs from Heiser St to Tower Rd. Throughout his career he wrote or edited more than a dozen monographs and books, mostly about the history of Hudson. His most recent book, "Stories of Old Hudson," was published in 2000. He was a member at one time at or another of Hudson Commercial Club (forerunner of the Hudson Chamber of Commerce), Hudson Rotary Club, Hudson Lodge of Elks No. 640, St. Croix County Historical Society and New Richmond Preservation Society. He was a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Hudson and its Questers organization. Other memberships included St. Croix Valley Barbershoppers, both Wisconsin and Minnesota Historical Societies, Lancaster (Penn.) Mennonite Historical Society, St. Croix Valley Genealogical Society, Minnesota Genealogical and Wisconsin Genealogical Societies, and the Hudson Hospital Association. In 1995 he was inducted into the Hudson High School Wall of Fame and in 2001 he received the Distinguished Service Award of the Federation of Genealogical Societies in Austin, Texas. A memorial service is scheduled on what would have been Willis' 90th birthday, Friday, Nov. 28, at 1 p.m., at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home in Hudson. Visitation is from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. A private burial will take place at a later date in Willow River Cemetery in the family lot. Because of his dedication to the history of Hudson and the countless obituaries he edited, memorials are preferred to the "St. Croix Community Foundation" for the Willow River Cemetery Chapel Restoration Fund. 715-386-3725


Published in Pioneer Press from Nov. 19 to Nov. 23, 2008