April 24, 2005
Good afternoon. I'm Lew Lipsitt, Ann's father, and the proud and loving father-in-law of Will Miller. Ann has lost the love of her life. Edna and I have lost a beloved son. Will was only 11 years younger than me. For this and other reasons you probably understand, I was disinclined to be paternalistic with him. We were contemporaries -- good comrades from related disciplines, professors with similar values and hopes for the future.
Will taught me a lot. He did much of the careful scrutinizing of often-hidden social injustices for us, and he was an eminently reliable reporter of facts. He never lost his youthful enthusiasm or compromised his personal integrity. I can't walk in Will's shoes, but I can wear his socks, which I'm doing today as I did at the beautiful Speakout in front of the Bailey Howe Library the day after Will died.
Many of you know the passion with which Will taught, in his classes, on the campus green, and in the street. In our minds' ears, we can hear even now his voice of protest, and his eagerness to make the world a better place. He could not tolerate self-seeking leaders sacrificing the safety, dignity, and hopes of people who longed for a just society where workers are respected and equitably employed. Will thought deeply, logically, and humanely, and he could connect the dots accurately.
Will's developmental and academic history was about a burgeoning desire to see a righteous democratic society in which philosophically defensible and socially humane measures are eventually put in place – by the people. Will passed on to his students the best kind of thought control – self-discipline and critical thinking. He taught with vigor the importance of questioning. He believed nothing in national politics or world governance that could not be verified, and he could provide triangulating evidence of any point he made about the culpability of authorities or vulnerabilities of the citizenry, including the university community. He believed that achievement of a just society was a discussable matter -- a matter for words, not guns. That's why he took so seriously his life's occupation, teaching -- and his life's preoccupation, marching with signs, debating strenuously, and wearing t-shirts and buttons with important messages.
Will loved learning from an early age. A high school dropout, he was nonetheless an avid reader and a powerfully self-educated adolescent. He thought he would be an electrician by trade. These inclinations never left him; later he would talk of becoming a professional electrician after retiring from academe. eHe He was as much at home doing plumbing and carpentry, as well as electricity, and he built the home he and Ann shared in Westford.
As a young person, Will was amazingly talented, intellectually and practically, and he proved throughout his career to be enormously resourceful, amazingly resilient. The day he turned 17, Will enlisted in the Army, and was assigned to Intelligence with security clearances. He continued his self-education, often asking people he respected what they were reading. He organized his own Great Books curriculum, and eventually realized he wanted a college education, probably to become a philosopher.
Soon after his discharge from the Army, while making plans to go to college, Will was called back during the Berlin Wall crisis. He thought his recall was unwarranted, so he wrote a letter which was like a shot heard 'round the world. The Chicago Tribune put 21-year-old Will Miller on their front page, photo and all, and the story was picked up across the country. Will got his wish, after some farcical experiences described by Jerry Swanson, who credits Will at age 21 with getting 150,000 soldiers, including himself, sent home or back to school – and getting a personal apology from an Army General to boot.
Will's exceptional intellect resulted in his being exempted from a year of college. He graduated in 3 years from the U of Illinois in 1966 with high honors. Avidly interested in the philosophy of Charles Peirce and William James, he stayed with his careful study of Peirce for his master's and PhD in the history of American philosophy in just 3 more years, and was hired at UVM as a promising young assistant professor. With the forced departure over political issues of Michael Parenti and others from the Philosophy Department, Will's career as a professional philosopher at UVM was forged. He received tenure, and thus survived the painful political purge of the Philosophy Department. But he became all the more intensively an action philosopher, and a very, very well-informed political scientist as well.
Will was one of the best teachers and social commentators that UVM ever had. John Dewey would have been proud of him. Will stayed at UVM the rest of his life – for 36 years as an Assistant Professor, without promotion. Shame on UVM!
Will became an academic believing that "the college" is an ideal place for discussion of philosophical and real-life differences of opinion, and for taking informed action to correct injustice. It was of wrenching sorrow to him to find that universities sometimes behave badly – without due process and in ways that can only marginalize well-meaning, industrious staff. Resisting that became a career-long theme of Will's. Forever afterward, Will used his mind and career to look after social injustices and to help victims of heavy-handed, self-protective, controlling authority figures. DOUBT was engrained in Will's frontal cortex – and on his number plate!
It's traditional for an occasion like this to be a way of paying final respects. In no way is this final, for Will has left much that will continue. He lives, in those special places in the brains and memories of those he loved and was loved by, and who themselves will carry on his work, from generation to generation. When Will helped people get their cars out of snowbanks, or from mud ditches during Spring thaw, they sometimes tried to pay him. Will's good friend, Bob Rice, says Will's reply was always "I don't want anything. Just help somebody else in a time of need." The way for us to honor Will and his work, from this generation to the next, from this student body to the next, and onward, is for us to follow that advice: Study, study, study, and help somebody who needs your help.