It’s a time of change, to be sure, for Wheatland County and its citizens. The writer expects to be part of them and you will be reading about that as time goes on. For now, he is teaming up with the Growth Council to author stories about the businesses and people which make Harlowton, Judith Gap, and the county run.
What better place to begin than with Jerry Miller and the Times-Clarion which have been such a central part of the community for so long. I visited with Mr. Miller on Thursday afternoon in his home office for most of two hours and found that we were able to barely scratch the surface of his life. Jerry is soft spoken and reserved and always listening. I had told him when I requested an interview, “What goes around, comes around.”
Jerry had to admit, “I’ve heard that,” and consented to sitting for a conversation. We had visited a few times before, here and there, over the past few years. But, I had only heard tidbits of his life and work.
So, I was surprised many times during the interview by the stories which he shared, not all of which I can repeat. Here is a beginning “for the record.”
The newspaper and the National Guard, community and family seem to be the major themes in Mr. Miller’s life. Quite a few years ago when he was just 14 years old, Jerry entered the employ of the the Times-Clarion. A friend of his was an apprentice at the paper, but was injured on the job. Hal Stearns turned to young Miller to fill his place.
That was in 1948 - along time ago and the year of my birth. I wish that made me feel younger. Jerry worked after school and on Saturdays and earned five dollars a week. His first pay raise saw him earning two bits an hour. Now, that’s a phrase you don’t hear much these days: “two bits.” I wonder why.
Apprentice Miller worked for Hal and Jean Stearns along with two full-time printers until he finished high school. Then, he went off to South Dakota State University in Brookings for a two-year printer’s training program. Jerry only stayed for one year. “I knew too much.”
With the Korean War going on, Jerry volunteered for the draft entering the Army one month after the armistice was signed. He took basic combat training at Fort Ord, California, and was transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia. When his background in newspapering was discovered, Private Miller was assigned to work at a printing plant on the base. However, he acted as a supply clerk and not a printer.
Miller joined the service in part to qualify for the GI Bill. But with a wife and child by the time he was discharged from the Army, it was difficult to find suitable housing back at Brookings. Jerry returned to Harlowton where Hal Stearns was happy to tell him, “You got a job.”
From 1955 until he and Audrey bought the paper in 1973, Jerry was a full-time printer. Miller’s newspaper writing really didn’t begin until ‘63 when the Stearns went on vacation to Europe to visit their son. Jerry was left in charge.
With the first Americans on the moon, Mr. Miller established a second “Tranquility Base” in Harlowton. “Everything was peaceful at Tranquility Base because the boss was gone.” From then until now, “Tranquility Base” has been an occasional column looking at the humorous and light side of things.
Jerry told me a bit about Mr. Stearns’s political leanings. “He was a real Republican,” very interested in politics, and wrote his own column called “The Editor’s Uneasy Chair.”
One day, Jerry was moving an iron chase which contained 120 pounds of set lead type. Well, he dropped it and when “the printer” put things back together, the column appeared in the paper as “The Uneasy Editor’s Chair.” The new title fit and stuck because “Stearns was always upset about something.”
Stearns eventually determined to move to Helena and pursue politics. “He made me a deal I couldn’t refuse, so I took over.” Audrey had never been away from their home, but came down and took over the front office.
Mr. Miller told me, “I learned the newspaper printing business three times.” The first was with linotype: type was created one line at a time with hot lead. These were lined up in chases. One year after the Miller’s bought the paper, they converted to photo offset printing where type was imprinted in bands of plastic tape which were 2 inches wide by 20 inches long.
By the late 80s, their offset equipment was wearing out and the Times-Clarion entered the computer age. Miller had received an invitation to attend a presentation on computers designed especially for newspapering. Jerry and Phil Koterba drove down to Billings to hear the sales pitch. The pitch produced at least one sale of $18,000 worth of computer equipment, all Apple products: one Mac Plus, two Mac 512s, a laser writer and an image writer printers. Jerry Miller has been a committed Macintosh user ever since. Yours truly is in the same category.
“Apple Macintosh was the first computer that concentrated on graphics capabilities which fit with newspapers. IBM appealed to businesses then and now, but Macintosh has lots of advantages with graphics. I’m still impressed that we can compose our paper on a computer and email it to the Livingston Enterprise for printing.
“The quality of newspapers is much improved because of computers. Now, we can use color photos to brighten up our pages. The sky is the limit as to what we can do. The printing process has been speeded up dramatically.
“Computers were and are a real blessing to the newspaper business. Email takes the place of copying, etc. But now, everybody has a computer and can print many of their own projects.”
Historically, the newspaper has provided half of the Times-Clarion’s income and commercial printing the other half. These days, that varies some with people doing more of their own printing. “We keep trying to find ways to replace some of these aspects of the business.”
With the present passage of the Times-Clarion into new hands, Mr. Miller reflected on what it was like when he took over from the Stearns. Jerry said, “I went to National Guard camp in June of 1973. When I got back on a Sunday, Hal had left the keys and a good luck note. We went to work owning the business the next day.”
Miller admits that he had no business experience at the time. He had not been involved at all with billing or accounts. “We had to set up our own system and run the business the best way that we could.”
Jerry had learned much from Stearns. Sometimes, more what not to do than what to do. “The hardest part of the business is getting people to develop confidence in your work.”
One, to me, telling decision that Jerry Miller made was not to accept press passes. He remarks, “When I used to go to school events, ticket takers would say, ‘Oh, you can’t pay.’” But, Miller found a good way around that by buying season tickets.
While newspaperman Miller had to learn much on his own, over the past few years and especially in the past few weeks, he has been tutoring the new owners in various ways. Charlie Church had given up his job at the grocery store four years ago when Jerry and Audrey resumed ownership of the Times-Clarion. He was recruited to help clean up the building. “Charlie kept coming back and we needed somebody. He went to work for us,” and has continued on doing mostly “behind-the-scenes” work. Recently, he has taken photos for the paper. And even more recently, Mr. Miller has been mentoring him on writing school board and town council meeting articles. Jerry is smilingly confident that shy Charlie is getting the hang of it.
Shelli Randles has worked for the Billings Gazette and grew up around the Bridger newspaper when her mother ran it. After living in Las Vegas and working in the tax business for some years, she moved to the area. She joined the Times-Clarion staff replacing Jean Nissen a few months after Charlie came on board. Now with the editorial help of Shirley Wegner, Shelli’s mother, the newspaper is set for a new incarnation.
Colonel Jerry Miller happily told me, “One of the better things that I did in my life was to stay in the military. I received leadership training, developed organizational skills, and got to go so many places and do so many things. The military retirement and medical benefits have made a huge difference for us. The regular pay check was and is great.”
Miller retired from 37 years of service (2 active duty, 5 in the Army Reserve, and 30 in the National Guard) as a full Colonel in 1985. He told me, “Colonels grow on trees.” I’m not quite sure of that, but I have interviewed two colonels in the stretch of a month. Wonder what that means.
Jerry left active duty in 1955 as a corporal. With the country unsettled at the time, “I never wanted to go back into the service as a private.” So, he joined the National Guard and worked his way up the ranks starting in a self-propelled howitzer battery. He was commander of the local unit in 1964-65. Later, he was squadron staff officer (Billings), regimental artillery officer (Bozeman), squadron training officer (Billings), squadron commander (Bozeman), and finished his career in Bozeman as regimental executive and training officer for the 163rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
The last three years of his National Guard service was spent on full time duty in Bozeman. Daughter Julie, who had trained in printing at SDSU and worked at a newspaper in Sidney, came home to take over the paper from 1982 to 1985. When Jerry and Audrey returned, Julie married and moved to Bozeman. Trading places.
Mr. Miller changed places again during his first retirement and now in his second. What’s ahead? “I don’t know, yet. I’m still doing some writing.” Jerry does want to finish indexing old newspaper articles so that resources for historical stories can be easily drawn together. Bill Dysart and Shelli Randles have helped in this endeavor, but a large part of the project remains to be completed.
As we parted, Jerry thought it important to say, “I am a firm believer in community service. If a person lives in a small town, he should be an active member. Everybody needs to be part of public service and get involved in the action.”
One thing Jerry wouldn’t involve himself in was a photo. I had my camera in the car and had a shot in mind, but no luck. “I have a camera so I can take pictures of OTHER people.”
We haven’t covered all the themes of Miller’s life, yet. We will pick up the lines and fill in some blanks six months from now. In the meantime, Jerry, enjoy the moments of rest, relaxation and retirement that you obviously deserve.