Professor Emeritus Jim Miller leads a campus tour in 2004
Professor Emeritus Jim Miller leads a campus tour in 2004

Chapman remembers Professor Jim Miller Beloved faculty member who taught at Chapman for 47 years passes away -- share your memories here

Professor Jim Miller
Professor Jim Miller

James C. Miller, professor emeritus at Chapman University, member of the Department of History faculty, and longtime inspiration to generations of Chapman students, passed away on Wednesday, November 11, 2015 at the age of 88.   Known as “Killer Miller” to countless classes because of his high expectations for his students and their work, and for his homespun “Things Mama Said” maxims, Jim Miller taught at Chapman for 47 years.

Miller was hired onto the Chapman faculty in 1956, two years after the college moved from Los Angeles to Orange, when it consisted of five buildings and just 250 students. His Chapman experience included 13 different offices, teaching classes in seven departments: cultural anthropology, speech, English, history, political science, religion and education.  The hundreds of students who passed through his classes included The Hon. George L. Argyros ’59, who was in one of his speech classes; The Hon. Loretta Sanchez ’82, who took a Miller history class; and current Chapman history professor William Cumiford, Ph.D., who took Miller’s “History of the American West” class and remained a close friend.

Jim Miller and Chapman President Jim Doti in 2003.
Jim Miller and Chapman President Jim Doti in 2003.

Born in Collinsville, Texas in 1927 (he never quite lost his Texas twang), Miller was the last of eight children and the first in his family to attend college.  His mother Exie was functionally illiterate, he recounted later, but wise in the ways of the world and humanity, teaching him invaluable life lessons that he would someday pass along to his students.  Chapman faculty and students alike came to treasure these nuggets of wisdom, which lightened the formidable academic load he always placed on students.  Examples: “Mama said, ‘Tell the truth the first time; then you don’t have to worry about how you told it before.”  “‘He talks pretty, but he’s loud,’ Mama used to say about me.”  “I’m gonna study about that” was one of his  favorite “Mama-isms.”

Miller was a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Marine Corps, serving during World War II and the Korean War.  He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of North Texas. He married Barbara Houck in 1953, and they had two sons, Gregg and Reade.

As a child, Miller had been expected to learn the “five R’s” — reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic, along with respect and responsibility.  He passed that expectation along to his own students.  “If you asked students, they’ll all say I respected them,” he said in a 2003 interview, “even if I made them toe the mark.”  His famous red pen would leave marks on every page of every student’s essay — but students always left his classes with greatly improved writing skills, as well as a critical understanding of national history and the principles that guide America.

Miller was also known for his immense enthusiasm and love for teaching.  He would enter his classes at a fast lope, as if he couldn’t wait to teach.  He was the first to credit his optimism and love for life to his deep religious faith — a lay minister, he led revivals and preached at a number of Southern California churches.

READ “Then and Now” – an essay about his life and times at Chapman, written by Jim Miller in 2003.

“He represents the best of the teaching profession,” said Ambassador Argyros in 2003, when Miller retired from the faculty. “He’s a great professor and a first-class human being.  He’s always positive and has a great sense of humor.”

Jim Miller Farewell
A huge farewell gathering in May 2004 was held in honor of Jim Miller’s retirement from Chapman.

His retirement was heralded by a huge gathering of Chapman faculty, staff, students and alumni in May 2004, who all came to sing the praises of this humble, joyful man who raised the spirits of everyone around him and imbued them with his love of learning. “I’m hopeful, ” said President Jim Doti at that retirement party, “that we will use Jim Miller as a role model of what a faculty member can and should be.”

The Jim Miller Parking Structure — fittingly located near the student residence halls — was dedicated in Miller’s honor in 2003, and an endowed Chapman scholarship was established in his name that same year.

A visitation will be held on Tuesday, November 17, 2015 at the Shannon-Bryan Mortuary in Orange, Calif., from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. A memorial service will be held at the United Methodist Church in Collinsville, Texas on Monday, November 23, 2015 at 11 a.m.  Burial will be in the Collinsville Cemetery following the service.  Chapman University is planning a celebration of Jim Miller’s life during the spring semester; more information will be forthcoming at a later stage.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Cal Farley’s Boys’ Ranch in Amarillo, Texas — a favorite charity of Miller’s.

Please feel free to share your memories of Professor Jim Miller in the comments section below.

Mary Platt

Mary Platt is director of the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University


  • Jim Miller is and will continue to be part of my daily
    practice of gratitude. He was so giving
    and, most importantly for me, forgiving.
    Even with my terrible writing skills as a freshman in his composition
    class he “saw” me. No other
    teacher acknowledged my my intellect as he did.
    He saw through my terrible spelling and grammar to the ideas I was
    trying to express. He always gave me two
    grades on my compositions; one for content and one for structure. Over and over he gave me an “A” for
    content and “Cs,”
    “Ds” and “Fs” for structure. Thank you, Jim Miller. Your acknowledgement of my mind and my ideas
    meant the world to me. I think without
    it I probably would have dropped out of college after my freshman year. Eventually I got a Masters Degree from
    USC. That would have been nearly
    impossible without Jim Miller’s help with my thesis. I brought it to him one morning and asked him
    to correct the structure. It was 128
    pages. He gave it back to me after
    lunch. He had corrected it as he
    ate. Now that was really something and a
    great, great gift.

  • He brought passion and excitement to History. He didn’t just lecture, he performed. He brought History to life and then examined them with that critical eye. He kept us awake and engaged. I will forever be grateful for the red pen. It made me think and grow. What a legacy you leave.

  • What a treat it was to study with Jim. He was kind enough to teach
    me on a self-study basis one half of American literature. I couldn’t
    wait each week for our hour together. As all of his students know who
    ever had Jim, he absolutely loved American Lit. And, together we had an
    awesome time exploring it. The first half I had had in class with Jim,
    who was always present with a joke, a story, a legend. And he was a
    superb story teller. Probably the greatest thing I remember of Jim is
    how he brightened and sparkled when telling a story or a joke. Never
    met anyone who had such a great abilility to bring a story to all
    humanity. We had such great professors at Chapman — people like Kurt
    Bergel, Jim Utter, Bert Williams, Bill Hall, to name a few — and Jim
    shined out as one of the best. They all prepared me well for Georgetown
    Law — with students from Harvard, Yale, and all of the eastern
    schools. After graduating, one of my great treats was to introduce Jim
    to my then fiance Marcie, who is second only to Jim in story telling
    and whom I have been lucky enough to be married to for 44 years. I
    thrilled at our engagement party as I did in class to his story telling
    ability — must have come from his years in Texas. To his family and
    wife, thank you so very much for sharing so much of Jim with us. At
    those special times over the years since Chapman as an attorney in law
    firms, Congress, and large corporations and later as a train conductor
    with Amtrak getting an opportunity to share stories, I would think of
    Jim often and draw on his example to help carry the story forward. I
    wish I were around the corner from Chapman for your celebration of a
    fantastically good life — a man who was a beacon in my life. Thank
    you, Jim, for being such a great man, a fine teacher, and when we were
    together a good friend.

    Russ Coupland, class of 1965
    Pawcatuck, CT

  • As a north Texan living in Orange, I loved every minute of his class. He told stories that reminded me of my childhood and encouraged me to dig deep into my family history before my grandparents passed away. I will always be thankful I took his class.

  • My first class, first day of college, 8 AM, English 1A. I was two minutes late having gone to the wrong building. Mr. Miller was standing on top of his desk, talking in a loud voice with his arms spread out wide as I tried to become invisible and sneak to a chair in the back. He stopped mid-sentence and said, “This is no way to begin your college experience, Mr. Sherman.” Over the many years, we became colleagues and friends. While working for Chapman, and on many visits thereafter, I often found myself on a bench across from Jim, listening to wonderful stories that always lifted my spirits. An icon. A model. How many of us learned to write by the point of his red pen?

  • I was at Chapman during the mid-1970s and took 4 classes from Jim. The first two were during the same semester. One of them was American Folk Culture and I can’t think of anyone who could have taught it better. Such fun to come to a class where he drew on the experiences of his childhood as we studied folk culture. It was the only class with a project in lieu of an exam. The others had his famous exams. I remember having written a full blue book on causes of the civil war. His comment on the essay was “adequate summary 24/25” I struggled with spelling which counted, even in history.

    After Chapman I went into teaching and he was the person I came back to visit. We’d go out to lunch or coffee and talk about education,students and life. I shall miss him.

    Kim Carpender

  • I never had Prof. Miller as an instructor yet he was my friend. We sat and talked over a cup of coffee several times and got to know each other. I was astonished that even when 10 years or more had gone by betwern our visits, he remembered me and my name. My most enduring memory was a PSA that Jim did portraying a drunk driver who had just killed someone. I was typically the “designated driver” in college and when I spoke to Jim about the impact of his performance, he replied that even though he’d never been in the situation, the power of the topic and script was irresistible. And he was so right! I will miss you for forever, Professor Miller.

  • As ANYONE who ever took a History class from Professor Miller (we ALL called him Jim Miller when he wasn’t there, but I couldn’t — to this day — have called him that to his face… To me, he was ALWAYS Professor Miller), there was MUCH more to learn than history!
    To this day, I have the paper I wrote on General George McClellan, USA, for a “Civil War and Reconstruction” class. I’ve kept it for the object lesson it contains…
    As he would PROUDLY tell anyone that would listen, he was the maternal great-grandson of General Jeb Stuart, CSA (GUESS his leanings in the teaching of THAT class…). So, of course, I chose to write about a Union general. Well, the day came to get our papers back, and mine was COVERED in Red Ink! OK, I had misspelled one word consistently throughout the paper (but shouldn’t ONE correction have been sufficient?), but the part I took umbrage with was his correction of the punctuation and grammar used in one of the sources that I had quoted in my paper! I brought this to his attention, and his reply was one I have NEVER forgotten, “It’s wrong. Whether YOU made it wrong, or someone else made it wrong doesn’t matter. Once you realize it is wrong, it is YOUR responsibility to make it RIGHT. THAT is why I am holding you accountable. I expect YOU to hold YOURSELF accountable.”
    There was MUCH more than History being taught in his class!
    THANK YOU, Professor Miller . YOU made a DIFFERENCE. YOU will be missed!

  • I took a history course from Jim when I was there around ’90-’91. I thoroughly enjoyed his classes and his “mama-isms” being a Texan myself because they were things I could hear my own great grand mother saying. I think I managed an 85 on every test I took with him. His lectures were always amazing as was his use, or lack thereof, of anything more than 3×5 notecards for his lectures. I was an RA my senior year, and as one of my community projects, I had Jim come and speak to a large group of my residents. I started my career at Chapman wanting to major in history, but changed to Film but I will never forget Jim’s classes. I was just wondering about him the other day. Sorry to hear of his passing but what a wonderful life he had and he touched so many lives while he was with us.

  • I am in my 35th year teaching elementary age children in California. My present assignment is in Fifth Grade. Many students have told me they became interested in U.S. History because of my class, especially about our Presidents. I owe everything to Mr. Jim Miller, who I had for three tough classes. He made me love this subject! God bless his family during this difficult time.
    Sherm Johnson
    Class of 1980.

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