John Miller is so passionate about creativity.
Those seem like easy words for an organization that seeks out and champions passionate, creative people in our region. But when it comes to John, a former South Dakota State history professor and current author, those words could not be more emphasized, celebrated or true.
John defines creativity in such an unassuming way, but with so much conviction behind it that you can’t help but want to stay just a bit longer in conversation with him. Aside from his career, he made a choice to immerse himself into the intellectual culture of South Dakota, and it’s his joy to share it with us. He’s always reading and always writing to carry the message of what creativity can mean and look like in the Midwest, and he’s committed to continuing not just his own education, but yours, too. John’s latest work is a collection of interviews with 22 creatives from South Dakota, and he’s also writing for myriad works on South Dakota history and culture.
We can all learn from the awareness, enthusiasm and appreciation John has for the OTA states, and we can start today.
Name: John E. Miller
How can people connect with you?
Facebook: John Miller
Where do you live now? Where do you call home?
I’ve called Brookings home for 41 years, since we moved here in 1974. I grew up in 6 Midwestern towns (+ a suburb of Chicago), but since I graduated from high school in Monett, Mo., I call Monett my hometown.
Give us a behind-the-scenes look at your average day.
Get up between 5 and 6 o’clock usually. Start reading newspapers or books or work on writing projects. Usually do an hour of physical stuff early. Sometimes it’s riding bike 10 miles. Others, it’s walking 4 miles. Since I got an annual pass at Edgebrook Golf Course, I’ve been on a binge of playing 18 holes before 9 o’clock 4-5 times a week.
Have some breakfast with (my wife) Kathy. Check to see how St. Louis Cardinals did yesterday. Read Argus Leader. Spend most of day reading books, working on research for current writing project(s), or doing the actual writing.
Once a week, on Tuesday, I go to Taco John’s for “Taco Tuesday” and solve all the world’s problems with four retired buddies (three SDSU professors and retired Agricultural Heritage Museum director). Go out to garden once or twice a week to weed and pick or dig vegetables. Get up to SDSU library for an hour or so every day (almost).
Afternoons, more of the same. Attend board meetings at our Ascension Lutheran Church or Brookings Arts Council once a month or so in late afternoon or evening. Always watch the PBS news programs on Friday night and listen to Garrison Keillor Prairie Home Companion Sat evening 5-7. Attend Ascension Lutheran Church every Sunday morning. Don’t watch much TV (mostly PBS).
What projects are you working on right now, both in your career as well as hobbies or passions?
My big project is a political biography of George McGovern. That has been continually delayed for the past three years by work on other projects.
Currently, I am one of three editors of a third volume on South Dakota political culture (“The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture” with the South Dakota Historical Society Press).
I am also finishing a chapter on “Small Towns” for an anthology of articles on Midwestern history.
I will have an article on “Is South Daskota Undergoing a Literary Renaissance?” in upcoming issue of “South Dakota History” (quarterly journal of South Dakota State Historical Society).
Am writing a chapter on “Laura Ingalls Wilder as a Midwestern Pioneer Girl” for an edited volume.
Also am just starting a chapter on “Harvey Dunn as a Midwestern Regionalist” for another edited volume.
What challenge are you most interested in overcoming?
A major challenge lately has been pushing my book on creativity (“First We Imagine: 22 Creative South Dakotans Speak on the Subject of Creativity”) so that bookstores will carry it, schools will use it in classes and readers will know about it.
I’ve also just started interviewing several dozen World War II soldiers for the Center for Western Studies at Augustana College.
If you could have any job, what would you do and why?
Regular columnist for The New York Times, Washington Post or any other publication that would want to carry it. Why? Because I have a lot of ideas and like to talk and write and get them out there.
Since you live in one of the OTA states:
Why do you choose to live here? We moved here in 1974 because there was a job here for me. We stayed here because Brookings is a great place to raise kids, people are friendly, down-to-earth, helpful and community-minded.
What is the most beneficial aspect of living in this region when it comes to your career? It was a place where I was allowed to basically “do my thing” within the parameters of the classes I was assigned to teach and the duties that went along with that. In a small state (population wise), people have a lot of leeway to be creative, because, basically, they have to.
What’s one thing you would change about the region? Make it more book-minded. More into intellectual discussions. More serious consideration of public issues. Less “steady as it goes” mentality. More excitement. More intellectual vigor. Less complacency. (That’s more than one.)
What’s one thing people don’t know about the region? That despite the seeming “sameness” of the population, there’s a lot of diversity here and diversity of opinion. The minority opinions just don’t always get heard or publicized.
Where do you think good ideas come from?
Good ideas come from a lot of reading, paying attention, keeping your eyes and ears open, drinking up experience, conversing with others, debate, bringing the insights of one area (e.g., art) to other areas (e.g., science, history, technology).
What’s one current trend you think will change the world?
Population growth and shifts as weather forces movement, people in poor areas desire to move to richer areas.
What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
Imagine where you want to be in 10-20 years and ask yourself how you could get there. Mainly you have to push yourself and not rely on other people to recognize your skill or talent. (This is something that is hard for Midwesterners, like myself, to do.)
Who’s the most creative person in your life, and why?
That’s a hard one. I call it a three-way tie between my wife, Kathy (elementary school counselor), who was and is always cooking up new ideas for helping kids learn and live their lives and is the consummate organizational participant and leader; my daughter, Ann – a professor of cell biology at University of Michigan, who is on the cutting edge of a hard science, but a fantastic mother and a fount of ideas for having fun, art, play, etc.; and son, Tom (who works for bp in “the loop” in Chicago and has the answer for every problem of every kind).
Who is the most connected person in your life, and what personal characteristics make him or her so well-connected?
Jon Lauck, my former SDSU history student who now works as senior adviser and counselor for Sen. Jon Thune in Sioux Falls but continues to write books, has started the Midwestern History Association and is singlehandedly building up interest in Midwestern regionalism. There are countless examples of his connectedness, not only in the historical profession, but everywhere.
Who is the most community-focused person in your life, and how do they impact their communities?
(Again, let’s keep my wife out of this) — Nels Granhoim, a retired SDSU professor who is president of the South Dakota chapter of World Affairs counsel, is heavily involved in OLLI classes (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) and a bundle of other things over time.
At what intersection do you live your life?
Creativity and Community — that fits it well. I could go on all day.
Who are the three people you need to have coffee with when you visit Sioux Falls?
1. Harry Thompson, director of Center for Western Studies / Augustana
2. Jon Lauck / historical entrepreneur extraordinaire
3. Joel Johnson / Prof. of political science at Augustana
What’s the best way to put inspiration into action?
My philosophy is the Nike Philosophy: “Just Do It!” and with enthusiasm.
Who do you hope to leave a legacy for?
Try to learn as much as you can about the world / put yourself in others’ shoes / develop a philosophy of life that guides you every day / never be bored, complacent or blasé.
Who’s one regional writer/artist/leader/entrepreneur we should pay attention to?
What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken?
Spending so much time researching and writing about Laura Ingalls Wilder.
What’s your biggest failure, and what did you learn from it?
Not trying harder to “move up the line” and get a job at a place like Wisconsin or Chicago. I learned it’s OK. There are tradeoffs in life and you don’t always have to aim at “the top.” Sometimes you discover that “the top” is right where you are and you were right all along.