Auto racing lost a treasure earlier this week. As did journalism, creative writing, solid reporting, turning a phrase, passing out wisdom, humor, conviction, knowing how to research a story and giving young writers a platform to develop.
Jerry Miller wasn’t famous like Brock Yates, David E. Davis, Dutch Mandel, Pete Lyons and the big guns of motorsports journalism back in the 1960s and ’70s, but he damn sure left his mark in the world of telling stories.
Born in little Hagerstown, Indiana, he was drawn to midget and sprint racing as a fan, and then decided he’d like to try writing about it. And what better education than all those Indiana short tracks, where a pit pass was $1 and access was easy? Wiry with a goofy grin, he blended into the background and was neither bold nor aggressive. But he earned people’s trust and asked a lot of great questions, and that curiosity led to his first book: Fast Company.
It was a cross-section of little guys trying to make it, weekend warriors having fun and serious talents like Lee Kunzman looking for a break. It was an eye-opener for this 19-year-old and laid the groundwork for a career.
And even though Jerry wrote for AutoWeek, Car & Driver, Sports Illustrated, Carl Hungness and just about all things motorsports, it was a passion but not an obsession. He had so much more to offer journalism, and did he ever. He began teaching at Ball State in 1983, earned his bachelor’s degree in English at West Virginia State College, and Masters in English and journalism from BSU in 1982.
He began teaching full-time at Ball State from 1983-85 and, while there, conducted the first Midwest Writers Conference. He then joined the journalism faculty of Franklin, serving as department chair from 1989-92 and retiring in 2004. He served as a copy editor for the college’s alumni magazine from 2011-17.
An award bearing his name was created by the Pulliam School of Journalism in 2019 to reward an outstanding FC journalism student each year.
He was a freelance magazine and newspaper writer for 50 years, and his articles won awards from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), Best of Gannett, American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association (AARWBA), Hoosier State Press Association, 1989 Philadelphia Writers Conference, Associated Press Managing Editors (APME), and Road & Track magazine.
He was also the author of three published non-fiction books: Fast Company (1972), Little Stars (2000), and Whole Truths (2010). He was working on two other non-fiction books before he became ill.
Miller felt especially privileged to have interviewed and written the stories of such celebrated and interesting individuals as Loretta Lynn, Martin Sheen, Gwendolyn Brooks (the poet ate fig bars), Wolfman Jack, William Stafford, Carl Perkins, Russell Means, Jinx Dawson (“One Tin Soldier”), Tom Lehrer, Jeff Gordon (afternoon in Pittsboro), A.J. Foyt, Richard Petty, Eiffel Plasterer (“Bubble Man”), Willy T. Ribbs and Bob Woodward, while he also covered Pope John Paul II’s public mass in Chicago, two murder trials, Doo-Wop Heaven, the “Blizzard of 78,” fishing with his grandfather, his own cancer(s), a colleague’s tragic battle with AIDS, 35 Indianapolis 500s and the U.S. 500.
He was a member of SPJ, Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications, American Journalism Historians Association, Kappa Tau Alpha journalism honorary society, American Civil Liberties Union, AARWBA, Amnesty International, Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers Club, and North American Scrabble Players Association. He had also been a member of the First Amendment Congress until it dissolved.
During his brutal battle with cancer the last few years he kept a diary that was honest, engaging amd downright funny trying to laugh in the face of death. And, of course his final words were so typical: “Jerry Miller, professor emeritus of journalism at Franklin College, died reluctantly June 26, 2021 at Aspen Trace in Franklin, Ind., after a lengthy illness unrelated to COVID-19. He was 81.”
Thanks to Suzanne Robinson for all her insights into his career.