On the anniversary of my dad's death I will reprint here for you the speech I gave at his 70th birthday and then again at his funeral. I hope it is somewhat funny and gives you some insight into why I miss him so much:
I know many of you knew my dad pretty well as a smart, serious and funny, wise and caring man who enjoyed life’s pleasures and knew how to manage a staff, a gaggle of crazy Russian visitors or a room full of graduate students. I want to share with you tonight the dad I knew and tell you a few things he taught me.
James Robert Millar, familiarly referred to as Jim Bob when in Texas, was born on July 7, 1936 to James and Virginia Millar of San Antonio, Texas. He grew up sandwiched between his older sister, Nancy, and his younger sister, Carolyn. It’s no easy being a middle child, but he knew he was destined for great things when he overheard his mother on the phone one day to a friend saying: “Nancy’s the smart one, Carolyn’s the pretty one, and Jim Bob delivers newspapers.” The very fact that he shared this story with me and can laugh at it is a testament to one of the lessons he taught me – never take yourself too seriously – always be able to laugh at yourself.
My dad did a stint in the ROTC and the Army Reserves. Now, you might not think of my dad as the army type, but it ran in the family and it helped pay for school. The funny thing is that the army probably had no idea what they had in their hands when Jim Bob arrived. Never taking things too seriously, as he knew this would not be his future career, he showed his loyalty to his troops when he located the officers cache of ice and delivered it to his enlisted men doing field maneuvers so they could have ice in their hidden stashes of scotch. He was such a brilliant leader that when the officers tried to stump him by handing him a troop of the biggest boneheadded, clutzy, two left footed, couldn’t see straight, tripping over themselves guys that no other company wanted, and then told him to attack the fortified base camp those same officers soon found grenades rolling into their tent while they played cards. I learned from my dad how to be a leader with humor and how to inspire loyalty in my own employees and coach the best out of them despite their weaknesses.
My dad sort of fell into his future. While going to graduate school at Cornell, he found a fellowship at Harvard to study Soviet Economics. The cold war had brought about a sudden demand for specialists in the Soviet arena. He wasn’t so certain, however, when he met an economics teacher who so frightened his students that they made a plan for each student to take turns answering one question a day, subjecting themselves to the ridicule that followed on an alternating basis. One thing my dad was great at was finding his footing anywhere. I learned by his example how to find a way through my uncertainty and fear when I’m in a new and intimidating situation.
My dad never stopped changing. He developed a talent for gourmet cooking when I was in high school, he learned Russian at 26 and how to ski at 30, and he grew to appreciate four star restaurants and walking along the C & O canal in the wee hours once he moved to D.C. Through all of this my dad taught me that you never have to stop bettering yourself.
One my dad’s greatest teachers was his own mother. A closet thespian herself, she coached him in speech and presentation. Her coaching can be seen in the lack of a Texas twang that accompanies most of his words. I could still catch him saying “Joo-ly” and “thee-ayter.” But it’s because of what he passed on to me that I stand before you giving this speech, hopefully without shuffling my feet and infusing my sentences with ‘uh’ and ‘you know.’
A few years ago I found myself in a job where I was underappreciated and unhappy. I felt that the place would fall down without me though and that I couldn’t leave. With a few simple words my dad gave me my most profound lesson to date. He just said to me one thing: “the graveyard is full of indispensable people.” Needless to say I’m not there anymore. I know he helped a lot of people step outside of themselves and see that they were not trapped in a life or future they did not desire. He was always supportive of his past students and employees when they chased their dreams too.
The man you knew the least and I knew the best was the guy who drove us to Michigan each summer playing Merle Haggard tapes and singing Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” The guy who would walk into Tower Records and asks an attendant to just pick some music out for him to try. The guy who took his daughter fishing at 6, married into a whole new culture, moved his family to Russia to write a book for a year and the guy who spent hours on the canal with binoculars spotting beaver, deer and all types of birds.
This is my dad, and for all that he has taught me and all he has shown me, I thank him today. I love you dad!