Remembering Woody Miller
Our faithful readers have surely noticed the decrease in material flowing across TheDetroiter.com these past few weeks. It is with a very heavy heart that we share that Managing Editor Woody Miller, the heart and soul of the site for the last several years since founders Nick and John Sousanis handed Y-Arts Detroit the keys in 2008, passed away after a mercifully swift battle with cancer. His passing on not only leaves a great hole in the capacity of TheDetroiter.com to deliver arts news, but also, our city has lost a strident advocate for healthy, positive living and the building of the creative class in Detroit.
We would like to invite you to share in a celebration of his life on Belle Isle Beach on Saturday, August 14, 2010 at 9:30 am. Cyclists are invited to share in one last lap around Belle Isle, Woody’s favorite ride.
Woody, in full cycling regalia, arrived on our doorstep and announced that Ron Allen, a Detroit playwright living in LA, had sent him to help with TheDetroiter.com. Y-Arts was about to assume the reins of TheDetroiter, and Gillian Eaton, Vice President of Arts and Humanities for the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit, had put out some feelers looking for help. Gillian was also friends with Mr. Allen, and he called to let her know Woody was coming. We were thrilled. None of us had met him before, but Woody had been in the publishing business for years and was connected in various ways to the creative community around the city. It seemed a natural fit, and so, immediately on his arrival, we began the work of running TheDetroiter.com.
“It’s what I’ve been saying for years,” Woody said. “Plan your work and work your plan. It’s about systems.” Conversations with him regularly began with, “It’s what I’ve been saying for years ,” followed by an axiomatic gem of wisdom (or perhaps an appropriate cliché), and then a good long talk. Woody was a tall man who could easily command a room with just his physicality, but he had a gentle way about him and I never once saw him use his presence to be anything other than kind. His demeanor was always calm and confident; nothing much seemed to bother him.
In the beginning, I questioned whether the “newspaper-days” wisdom he had amassed still applied to this new fangled internet stuff; newspapers were failing right and left, and the old ways weren’t translating. But Woody was convinced that papers had, generally speaking, panicked and had overcomplicated the work at hand. “There’s one, there’s two, and there’s many,” I heard him say almost weekly. We can do one or two things really well, and after that, the list becomes a pile that’s going to be a trick to manage. So, we created a list of one or two things to get done at a time, and when those things were done, we created the next list. It seemed to be a slow way to get things started, but Woody assured me that creating a plan in this methodical way and then executing the plan would ultimately make it all work.
Almost immediately, the project of taking over the site hit some bumps. A grant we had been counting on to get things going did not come through, and also, Woody wanted to see a number of elements of his plan more firmly in place before reaching out to advertisers for support. Y-Arts programming was expanding quickly, and fewer resources were immediately available to him than when he first walked through the door, so the bulk of the job of making everything work came to rest on his shoulders. He accepted the situation with little complaint, despite the fact that things were going to happen much slower than he liked.
Before long, Woody was a permanent fixture in our office. In the early afternoon, he would appear and set up his laptop to sift through the virtual mountain of press releases and announcements in his inbox that are the source of the site’s mostly event-centric posts. He invoiced us for the time he spent on the site originally, but eventually, as he became more aware of the frailty of Y-Arts’ financial support, the invoices stopped. His efforts, which totaled several dozen hours each week, were done out of his personal, stubborn commitment to making the site successful. It was not uncommon to see posts going out at two or three in the morning. It was his new baby, and he was its devoted caregiver literally for the rest of his life. In 2009, Woody was recognized by the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit, the association that manages the 15 or so Ys around Detroit, for his outstanding commitment as a volunteer.
Running Around Like a Chicken Cut His Head Off
TheDetroiter.com was just one project in a growing list of programs that Y-Arts, which had only existed for a couple of years by the time Woody arrived, began offering in and around the city. Woody engaged with most all of them, involving himself in one way or another, and always as a volunteer. He made regular appearances in the Marlene Boll Theatre’s box office taking tickets. He arranged to have bicycles donated by The Hub to Y-Arts to help with bicycle safety. He took breaks from editing posts on TheDetroiter to visit with the refugees from Freedom House who visit Y-Arts daily.
Playing with words and telling stories happened a lot in those afternoons, too. We were packing it in one evening after a long day, shutting down computers and putting on coats. Papa John, one of the Freedom House residents who started the t-shirt screen printing program at Y-Arts, attempted to repeat one of Woody’s expressions as we were leaving.
“Yes,” John said, following us out. “Let’s blow up this pop stand.” Woody and I exchanged a quick glance before we both cracked up. Woody’s laugh, that wonderful deep belly laugh, made those moments with him. It was hard not to laugh when he was laughing. He explained to John that “blowing the pop stand” was altogether different than blowing it up. The mistake reminded him of being a kid in Newnan, Georgia. He had an aunt there, who, like Woody, used a lot of expressions when she spoke, but she always got them somehow wrong. When asked if she had been busy, she replied, “Oh, Lord, yes. I’ve been running around like a chicken cut my head off.” Again that belly laugh, that infectious fun.
Quick stories like this were how we got to know Woody, but he rarely shared the deeper details. I was probably closer than anyone at Y-Arts to Woody, working directly with him for several years, but even so, there was a guarded, private side I didn’t have access to. I didn’t know where he lived, how many kids or grandkids he had (though it was clear he was wild about them all), what he did to earn a living outside the Y (I always assumed he was retired, but from what?). I heard through someone else that his son, Yale, had been killed a year or so before he started working with us, and he did eventually mention this to me, but in a very quiet, matter of fact way. It was an emotional thing to talk about, and I knew he did not want to, so I didn’t pry. We quickly changed the subject. As a father, I marveled at this strength he had, to have dealt with the loss of a child and to not only function, but to be actively involved in something like the YMCA, which kept us running around like a chicken had cut our heads off.
…And Bob’s Your Uncle
Woody’s love of cycling was as pure and complete as any love I’d ever encountered. He dressed the part except in the most formal of occasions, and he caught a lot grief over the lycra costume, helmet, and insectoid riding goggles that were his daily uniform. His shoes, made for clicking into his pedals, clicked and scraped along the polished floor of the Y, and no matter how much he assured John Harris, the Executive Director of the Boll Family YMCA, that they would not scratch the floor, you could see John cringe with every step Woody took. Of course, Woody was right, they didn’t leave a mark.
Woody rode rain or shine, day or night. Only the snowiest, darkest winter days kept him off his bike, and he talked a lot about enjoying rides from Detroit to Lansing and back. He talked, too, about training young riders for professional competition, and was proud of his accomplishments and theirs in the sport.
So, when the autumn leaves of 2009 began blowing around, it struck me as a little disconcerting when he called one afternoon to tell me he was having a hard time riding and probably wasn’t coming in for a couple of days. He had complained the week before about possible food poisoning, a bad sandwich had kept him in the bathroom most of a night.
“I thought I was over it, but I went for a ride earlier and something still isn’t right,” he said. We talked shop a little, he asked about my kids and the folks around the office and then we said our goodbyes. I bookmarked the moment mentally, but decided that, as Woody himself suggested, everything was OK.
Over the next several months, we saw less and less of Woody, though he called in regularly and the amount of content flowing across TheDetroiter did not decline. He ran into Cedric Tai at some point and asked him if he would be interested in helping out with TheDetroiter. Cedric, who has an able hand in just about everything creative happening in the city, was happy to come in and meet with us, and he brought a Web developer friend, Rodney Drewery, in with him. We all met on a number of occasions to sort out how to advance the site, and if possible, how to attract financial support to keep the project going.
By spring, things were looking up. Woody, who decided the earlier period of stomach problems must have been related to diet, had lost a bit of weight, but we chalked it up to the fact that he had started riding again and perhaps also that he was being more careful about what he was eating. He still wasn’t coming in every afternoon as he once had, but as long as he was posting to the site on at least a weekly basis, I wasn’t overly concerned. Woody was, after all, a volunteer, and any effort he put in was appreciated.
But then one week in perhaps early June, Woody didn’t post anything. I couldn’t send the newsletter because there was nothing new to send out. I couldn’t get him on the phone and he wasn’t replying to emails. After a day or two, a new post appeared, and then finally he called to tell us that he had gone to the emergency room the weekend before. They were running some tests and had scheduled a surgery. The doctors recommended “maybe some chemo” as a precautionary measure, but he didn’t want anyone to worry, he would be putting posts up and we would be running again in no time.
“I’ll be out a couple of weeks dealing with this,” he assured me, “but we’ll get this intestinal thing sorted out and Bob’s your uncle.” Another expression and that wonderful laugh made me almost believe him.
A second week passed with no new posts. Woody, sounding tired, called in to apologize late in the week, but of course it wasn’t necessary to apologize. He had already done so much, a couple of weeks off was deserved. We were more concerned about him getting his health in order.
Another week passed, and then one day David, Woody’s son who now lives in Seattle, called to let us know that Woody’s situation was much more dire than he was letting on. Even David felt he wasn’t getting the whole story from his dad, so he had tracked down the doctor treating Woody.
“It’s a terminal illness,” David reported. In the worst case, meaning he didn’t respond to the chemo, Woody had maybe six weeks.
Six weeks. It seemed unfathomable. Even in the best scenario, Woody didn’t have much time beyond that, according to the doctor.
Tim McGorey, the Y-Arts program manager who was there that first day Woody came in to offer his help, went up to see Woody the next afternoon, followed by another Y-Arts staffer, Nate Mullen, a day or so later. Finally, Tim and I made it up to the hospital to see him together. He had put in a request to Nate for real grapefruit juice, so we took some with us. He appeared a bit weak, had lost more weight, and his hair had grown out a bit.
“The food is awful,” he commented. “I finally got them to bring me just a big plate of fruit. That first bite of watermelon had my eyes just rolling back in my head.” He was excited to see the juice. “Ah, good. No more of that fructose water.” We talked about his view of the trees and the rough old guy he was sharing the room with, a history buff, it seemed, who like to argue about just about anything. Woody rolled his eyes.
We talked about organizing the work of TheDetroiter and how he was having a hard time concentrating at the moment, but he planned to get a system going so that Cedric and I could lend him a hand. I did my best to assure him that it all would be fine. I knew he was more concerned about me and the amount of work I already had on my plate.
And then he mentioned a strange experience he was having, recurring dreams about a sort of symbol, something a bit like a yin and yang, floating atop a distant pyramid on the horizon. The symbol seemed to still be there, even awake, and it was making him confused about his body.
“It’s like I have two bodies,” he said. He had to think hard about which of the two bodies was doing whatever it was he was doing at any given moment. “I don’t know how I’ll get it sorted out,” he said.
He told us that David was flying him out to Seattle, and he was excited about this because David had a bicycle out there that he was looking forward to riding. He was practically falling asleep mid sentence by then, so we said goodbyes.
A couple of weeks later, on July 18, a Sunday, two days after my birthday which I coincidentally share with his son, David, I saw a post on Facebook that seemed to be memorializing Woody. I frantically sent a message to the person who posted it and managed to see a couple more posts by other shared friends.
The following morning, David confirmed that Woody had indeed passed in Seattle in the early morning of July 17. It had been just over a month since, for the first time in almost two years, Woody went a week without posting to TheDetroiter.com.
In thinking about how to write about Woody, I realized he was a good friend of mine that I didn’t know very well. I reached out to David for help in filling in some of the gaps for this story, and in doing so, learned that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. There was a lot David didn’t know, either.
He directed me to his cousin Jessica, who had spent some time with relatives in Georgia. He also thought I should get in touch with Bill Boswell, Woody’s dear friend whom David said Woody talked about often. I did, and they generously provided the following overview of Woody’s life, which I have pieced together from messages from all three. So for those of you out there who learned from and laughed with him but feel that you didn’t really know him, here is what I have come to know about my good friend, Woody Miller:
Elwood “Woody” Drake Miller was born on September 28, 1944 at 66 Macintosh Street (now MLK) in Newnan, Georgia, to Leona and Ellwood Miller. It was the same house his mother had been born in, a house built by her father or grandfather. To this day, relatives still own the house and live there. Located about 35 miles from Atlanta, Newnan was a small agricultural town at the time Woody was born, but has since grown tremendously. His mother attended Clark College and was a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Woody, the oldest, had two siblings: Jan, the middle child, and Steve, the youngest (Woody’s children would later call Steve “Uncle Honey”). The Millers moved the family north to Detroit “for the relatively good paying jobs that African American men could find in the auto manufacturing plants.” His father eventually retired from Ford and his mother from Sears and Roebuck in Livonia, where she taught sewing and economics classes. When she was 16, his sister, Jan, died of a brain aneurysm, and the tragedy deeply affected him. He graduated from Mumford High School in about 1962 and immediately entered the Air Force. Stationed in Alaska, he took classes in Literature and Philosophy at the University of Alaska, and eventually got an early discharge as a conscientious objector. On his return to Detroit, he went to work as a supervisor at a dry cleaning concern. He grew more active in the music and theatre scene, eventually doing PR and other work at Music Hall as the Director of Audience Development, and also took classes at Wayne County Community College and later Wayne State. He met and married his first wife, Edna, and they had two sons, David (Davey, born July 16, 1968), his oldest, and Yale (Njoma, born April 9, 1971). Woody was involved in the Peace Movement and wrote a lot of poetry, even taking six months after David was born to be a “house husband” and to write. In 1970, he went to work for Bill Boswell, who hired him as Assistant Manager of the Wayne County Community College Bookstore. Woody and Bill became great friends, staying in touch even after both left the bookstore in 1971. During that same year, he tried his hand at acting at the Detroit Repertory Theatre (in OF MICE AND MEN, in the 1971/72 season). After five years of marriage, Woody and Edna divorced, but remained very close friends for the remainder of Woody’s life. Woody, living in Indian Village, then married his second wife, Merry, who had a son also named David. (Bill Boswell reports that he lived in their attic for a time as he pursued his career in professional theatre). Woody worked as an insurance agent for a short while and then went on to become President and Publisher of the Michigan Healthcare News as well as Midtown Associates, an advertising agency, for the next 12 to 13 years. The offices were housed in the Belcrest Hotel on Cass. Merry and Woody divorced around 1986 at about the same time that Woody sold the Michigan Healthcare News. Merry now lives in Australia with her husband, Bob. It was also during this period in the eighties that he developed his love of cycling. He was a natural, and would later train young men and women for professional competition. For the remainder of his working career, Woody worked mainly as a consultant for nonprofits. In the late nineties, he moved to Ann Arbor, but returned to Detroit in 2005. His son, Yale, had children by then, and Woody’s love for them flourished. He was their Babu, and he was rarely seen without a grandchild on his lap or hanging off his shoulders. He loved to play guitar for them and it is said he was rather good at telling scary stories. On February 24, 2007, shortly after departing the residence of a long time friend, tragedy struck Woody again when Yale’s vehicle caught a barrage of bullets and he was fatally wounded. Yale passed away that same night at the age of 35. As with the passing of his sister all those years before, the loss completely devastated Woody. Not long after, Woody became the Managing Editor of TheDetroiter.com as it passed from founders Nick and John Sousanis to Y-Arts of the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit in 2008. He volunteered a tremendous amount of time to the Y mission and became an almost permanent fixture at the Boll Family YMCA where the Y-Arts offices are found. He also continued his love of cycling, serving on the board of The Hub of Detroit, a nonprofit bicycle reuse and repair shop located in the Cass Corridor of Detroit. In the early summer of 2010, Woody fell ill to symptoms that were diagnosed as colon cancer. He was transported to Seattle, Washington, where David currently lives with his wife and daughter, for treatment. Unfortunately for the city of Detroit, particularly for the cycling and arts communities of Detroit, he didn’t live to see his beloved city again. Woody passed away during the morning hours of July 17, 2010. He was 65 years old. A memorial service was held on August 14, 2010 at Belle Isle at 9:30 am. His son, David, leading a pack of cyclists, carried his ashes for the final lap of his favorite ride.
Woody Miller will be sorely missed.