Arts - Winter 2005

The Industrial-Strength Humanist

J. Irwin Miller knew how to get things built

By Robert Campbell | December 1, 2004


The twentieth century was the century of experts, when the very word amateur came to be spoken with a curled lip. It was also the century of sorting things out, an activity always regarded, for some reason, as scientific. As it began, the Nobel Prizes were established, awarded not to generalists but to specialists in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, even specialists in peace. Human achievement was sliced into labeled categories. As the century closed, more and more people were getting academic degrees not in the humanities, but in such expertist subjects as business, agronomy, or computer science. Majors in classics or English were on the decline.

The world is best governed by amateurs, however, not experts. We need generalists to evaluate the specialists. In the Cuban missile crisis, we want the choices to have been made by a John F. Kennedy, not by the professionals who advised him to invade. An educated generalist is one who is not easily snowed by experts.

All this came home to me in August, when the Wall Street Journal asked me to write an obituary and appreciation of J. Irwin Miller, the industrialist. Miller was a man who seemed to have stepped out of an earlier time. He was internationally known for one accomplishment: his sponsorship of new architecture in his hometown of Columbus, Indiana. Because of his efforts, a city of fewer than forty thousand inhabitants became a world mecca of architecture, with more significant contemporary buildings than any American city outside of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Miller wasn’t trained in architecture, though, or in any related field. He was an amateur.

Architecture was only one of Miller’s interests. He was principally a businessman. At the age of twenty-five, he took over a failing diesel company, Cummins Engine, which was little more than a family hobby and which had never turned a profit. Miller built it into a Fortune 500 colossus, with $6 billion in sales in 2003. He never went to business school.

When he became president of the National Council of Churches, he was the first layperson ever to hold the job. He had no special training
in religion. Miller can best be understood as a layperson of almost everything. At Yale, he majored in Latin and minored in Greek. He continued to read the Gospels in the original Greek all his life. From Yale he went on to Oxford, where he studied political science, thinking perhaps he would go into politics. A fine athlete, he also rowed at Henley.

Miller loved music and played the violin. He owned a Stradivarius and a Guarnerius, and often in the evening he would play with friends or play along with recrds called Music Minus One, in which the violin part was left out. A favorite was the Beethoven violin concerto.

His house was designed by the noted architect Eero Saarinen. In it were works by Matisse, Bonnard, and other artists. The house occupied a setting designed by the great landscape architect Dan Kiley.

In World War II Miller volunteered for the Navy’s air corps and saw action in the Pacific before being called home. The government thought he could better help the war effort by running Cummins. A lifelong advocate of civil rights, he helped plan—not fund, mind you, but plan—the 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Andrew Young. Because of apartheid, he pulled Cummins out of South Africa at a time when it had 20 percent of the diesel business there.

Miller didn’t miss out on family life either. He was married for sixty-one years and had five children and, at his death, ten grandchildren. It was because he was a generalist in an age of specialists that Miller was able to accomplish so much. His grounding in religion and the classics provided him with wisdom and values he believed he could apply anywhere. He never seemed to feel unqualified to move into a new field, any more than did, say, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson made himself one of America’s greatest architects by a spare-time study of books and buildings. Miller’s own interest in architecture dated from college days.

“At Yale around 1930 the only thing we were interested in was architecture,” he once told me. “Yale was building its traditional colleges, but we undergraduates knew about the modern architecture in Europe.” He confronted architecture again when his family’s church, First Christian, wished to build a new home for itself
in Columbus. Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, the father of Eero and head of the Cranbrook School in Michigan, was offered the job but turned it down, complaining that too many churches were building for self-aggrandizement. Miller the classicist persuaded Saarinen to reconsider by telling him that First Christian believed in “leading a rich inner life and a simple outer life.” During construction of the church—which, incidentally, is one of America’s finest buildings—Miller became close friends with Eero.

Miller’s amateur interest in architecture led him, some years later, to his famous initiative in Columbus. He persuaded city and county agencies to hire world-class architects for new buildings by offering to pay the architects’ fees himself. The only condition was that the agency had to choose its architect from a list of five, tailored for each project, provided by Miller. It is important to note that Miller never overstepped. He didn’t make up the lists by himself but sought advice from trusted critics and architects. Once he’d offered the list, he stopped. He made no effort to influence the client’s choice, and he never commented to anyone afterward on what he thought of the resulting building. Today the architectural tour of Columbus includes more than seventy buildings, many by the giants of twentieth-century architecture.

One of his sons recalls that when he went off to college, Miller told him to take a survey course in every major discipline. “Take intro to everything and don’t worry about the major,” he said. “You’ll go to trade school later.” By trade school, he meant graduate school. Says the son: “He was a real believer in the true liberal arts education as a prerequisite to good citizenship.”

Besides being a generalist, Miller was remarkable for his time in one other way: he stayed in one place. His family was wealthy from banking long before Miller achieved his success with Cummins. Miller could have afforded to live anywhere but chose to remain in Columbus. He liked to quote the Latin historian Tacitus: “The good life is one lived in praiseworthy competition with one’s ancestors.” Miller had a lot of ancestors to compete with. The family settled in Bartholomew County in 1820. Both his grandfathers were Protestant ministers. They were generalists too (one of them became consul general at the Ottoman court in Constantinople). Miller’s father was lieutenant governor of Indiana. As a kid, Miller liked to hang out in the garage with his great-grandfather’s chauffeur, a man named Clessie Cummins. They became pals. It was Cummins who invented the technology that was used in the Cummins Engine Company, which Miller later developed. Clessie Cummins was best man at Miller’s wedding. There is that sense of connectedness in everything Miller did. He was place-specific. Some of his grandchildren are now the family’s eighth generation in Columbus.

When people stay in one place, they develop a sense of responsibility for it. If you’re going to have to face your former schoolmates in the club next week, you’re less likely to erect a shoddy building. That kind of responsibility is disappearing. In my own town of Boston today, the major bank, the leading newspaper, and even the miraculous Red Sox are owned by out-of-towners. They may be good people, but they’re not going to possess the local knowledge or, more important, the sense of obligation to the community that guided Miller. “He felt,” says his son, “that business should be the instrument of social reform and change. He believed that whatever wealth accumulates in your particular possession in a capitalist society is best conceived of as a stewardship. You did not alone create it.”

I first heard of J. Irwin Miller when, long ago, I saw the October 1967 cover of Esquire magazine. Miller was pictured in profile, like a figure on a coin. Esquire’s caption read: “This Man Ought to Be the Next President of the United States.” I remember saying to myself, “Who the hell is J. Irwin Miller?”

Decades later I met Miller, then in his eighties, and told him that story. He replied: “That’s a question I often ask myself.” Amusing, but I think he meant it. Like Socrates, he believed that the unexamined life is not worth living.

Miller didn’t run for president in 1968, but typically he did get involved. He chaired Nelson Rockefeller’s finance committee.

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