Saginaw had other great educators who left this city to attain their greatest fame elsewhere, but there was one who flowered fruitfully on the vine here to lasting fame as one of the public school system’s soundest no-nonsense educators and administrators in achieving his brilliant record. He was Chester F. Miller, for 28 years public school superintendent. He became known as the architect of the strength of the Saginaw public school system, recognized by other school officials as one of the state’s soundest.
During his life, he earned virtually all the honors that can come to a schoolman. Michigan governors of both parties appointed him to important state posts. He also distinguished himself as an author. He wrote 14 textbooks and numerous articles. Some of his textbooks became standard volumes in school libraries. He was on the editorial board of Nation’s Schools, one of the nation’s top educational journals.
He was born July 14, 1885, in Vandalia, Illinois. His childhood was not easy and was fraught with uncertainty. When he was five years old, he went with his mother to the state of Washington, where she was sent for her health. His father, a Methodist minister, remained in Illinois. After a short time his mother died and he was sent by train back to his father. As Miller once said in retrospect: “They put a tag on me and shipped me back to Illinois.”
Four years later, Rev. Mr. Miller died, leaving nine-year-old Chester on his own. He had no brothers or sisters. He always said that left him being shunted to too many places to recall in detail. During his boyhood young Miller became interested in mechanics and decided to learn as much about the subject as he could. He worked his way through college with the help of football and basketball scholarships. He was captain of both teams. At no time during his four years at McKendree College (Illinois) did Miller take an education course.
Once asked when he decided to become a schoolteacher, Miller said he never did. His first full-time job was in a dynamo plant, but he took a leave of absence the first year to help a friend by teaching and coaching athletics in Tiskilwa, Illinois. Tiskilwa officials promoted him to principal and superintendent so fast that he never ended his dynamo plant leave of absence. He went back to college to study educational administration and became absorbed with school teaching and administration. In Illinois, he learned the art of politics. It seemed every Illinois legislator had a scholarship waiting to be donated. Miller wangled his share of them for those of his deserving young charges.
Miller came to Saginaw in 1928 to consolidate the east and west side school districts. His knack for smoothing sticky situations soon was apparent. For years, leaders on the two sides of the Saginaw River had glared and muttered at each other. If one side zigged, the other contrarily zagged. Getting them to agree on a school program for the entire city took a diplomat. Chester F. Miller soon proved he was that. But achieving agreement and a semblance of unification took a lot of doing. Miller later remarked wryly that he had thought of living in a houseboat in the middle of the Saginaw River to escape any suspicion of partiality.
Ten Saginaw public schools were built during Miller’s superintendency. These included the multi-million dollar Saginaw High and Arthur Hill High Schools, Eddy Junior High, Longstreet, Rouse, Handley, Morley, Fuerbringer, Potter and Loomis. A west side school was named after him after his death.
Miller knew his way around among legislators in Washington and Lansing. He was “Chet” Miller to them. They liked him for his directness and knowledge of what he was up to in the matter of education and possible available grants in federal or state funds. Miller made more than a half dozen trips to Washington, D.C., to finally obtain 45 percent of the cost of the $1.2 million Arthur Hill High School. He also managed to persuade the Public Works Administration to pay almost $700,000, or 45 percent, of what a new Saginaw High School would have cost in 1938. But that effort was wasted. Voters couldn’t see their way clear to finance the rest of the cost. After two more bond issues were turned down at the polls, voters in 1950 finally approved a $6 million issue to build Saginaw High and other schools. But the intervening lost time had seen building costs rise sharply. Miller said the three-time voter rejection was the greatest disappointment he had in his 28 years as superintendent.
He was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by his alma mater, McKendree College, and also by Alma College. The Michigan Congress of Parents and Teachers gave him its Distinguished Service Award. He was appointed by Michigan governors to the State Planning Commission, the Michigan Constitutional Commission and the Michigan Public Education Commission.
The thick-set build of his youth later inclined to portliness. He had a deep voice. On first acquaintance he seemed gruff to some. This impression soon melted. He was uniformly good-natured and his sense of humor was of the first order. Reporters who had his trust—cross or double-deal him once and you were off his list— generally were of the opinion they never had worked with a more honest or competent public official. A few who knew him well learned of his occasional use of a leaf of chewing tobacco tucked surreptitiously in a cheek. He was never seen to spit and chuckled at the “discovery” he never chose to admit.
Miller and his wife, the former Florence Hedrick, had two daughters.
Chester F. Miller died in Saginaw in 1964 at 78.