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'We're here because we want to be here': New UA president settling in to life in Akron, sans spiders

Akron Beacon Journal logo Akron Beacon Journal 1/12/2020 By Jennifer Pignolet, Akron Beacon Journal
A spider candy dish in the office University of Akron President Gary Miller in Buchtel Hall in Akron on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.  [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal] © Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS A spider candy dish in the office University of Akron President Gary Miller in Buchtel Hall in Akron on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

No one would have blamed him for catering the dinner.

a person sitting on a couch: Gary Miller, president of University of Akron,  and his wife, Georgia Nix Miller, talk about their respective careers in his office in Buchtel Hall in Akron on Wednesday Jan. 8, 2020.  The “Ecology” textbook that Miller wrote with Robert E. Ricklefs rests on the coffee table. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal] © Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS Gary Miller, president of University of Akron, and his wife, Georgia Nix Miller, talk about their respective careers in his office in Buchtel Hall in Akron on Wednesday Jan. 8, 2020. The “Ecology” textbook that Miller wrote with Robert E. Ricklefs rests on the coffee table. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

Gary Miller, after all, had never made a full vegan meal in his life. But for a group of vegan students coming to his North Carolina house, the college president was willing to go the extra mile and cook dinner himself.

a man wearing a suit and tie: A Zippy bobblehead stands on a coffee table in University of Akron President Gary Miller’s office in Buchtel Hall.  [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal] © Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS A Zippy bobblehead stands on a coffee table in University of Akron President Gary Miller’s office in Buchtel Hall. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

"It was a stretch," Miller, now the University of Akron president, said. "It used all of my culinary abilities, which were limited to begin with."

"It took him all day," his wife, Georgia Nix Miller, noted with pride.

That's the part of the high-stress job of leading a university the Millers love the most: connecting with students.

They are eager to invite the community into their home here as well, but it will take at least a few months.

The couple purchased a house in Fairlawn in December and immediately embarked on an extensive renovation.

"The bones are fabulous," Nix Miller said.

She was referring to the house, but the same could be said for how Miller sees the university he now leads.

Subhash Ghai wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Gary Miller, president of University of Akron, talks about the "Ecology“ textbook he wrote with Robert E. Ricklefs in his office in Buchtel Hall in Akron on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.  [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal] © Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS Gary Miller, president of University of Akron, talks about the "Ecology“ textbook he wrote with Robert E. Ricklefs in his office in Buchtel Hall in Akron on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

"This is a fine institution already," Miller said. "It has virtually all the components it needs to increase enrollment and keep people here."

When the board of trustees announced Miller's appointment in August, the former biology professor and spider expert and his fiercely independent southern wife were a virtual unknown in Akron.

a group of people sitting at a table: Gary Miller, president of University of Akron, and his wife, Georgia Nix Miller, share a smile as they talk about how they met. They are pictured in his office in Buchtel Hall in Akron on Wednesday.  [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal] © Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS Gary Miller, president of University of Akron, and his wife, Georgia Nix Miller, share a smile as they talk about how they met. They are pictured in his office in Buchtel Hall in Akron on Wednesday. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

Three months later, the Millers have thrown themselves into their new home, deploying their own well-worn strategy of getting to know their community and letting their community get to know them.

a man and a woman sitting on a table: Gary Miller, president of University of Akron, talks about the “Ecology” textbook he wrote with Robert E. Ricklefs as his wife, Georgia Nix Miller, listens Wednesday in Akron.  [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal] © Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS Gary Miller, president of University of Akron, talks about the “Ecology” textbook he wrote with Robert E. Ricklefs as his wife, Georgia Nix Miller, listens Wednesday in Akron. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

"We're here because we want to be here," Miller said.

From an athlete to academia ... and spiders

A three-sport high school athlete, Gary Miller grew up in a town of about 800 people in northern Virginia with two brothers.

"We all left home," he said.

He left for the College of William and Mary, where he walked onto the lacrosse team having been thrown into the sport the summer prior by his older brother, who was an assistant coach at the college.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Gary Miller, president of University of Akron, talks Wednesday about his career before coming to Akron. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal] © Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS Gary Miller, president of University of Akron, talks Wednesday about his career before coming to Akron. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

"We were good," Miller said modestly.

"I heard they were excellent," his wife added, taking him up a notch.

For Miller, that experience cemented his enthusiastic support of college athletics, something he made clear to the board of trustees when they appointed him.

"I understand what it's like to be a student athlete and how hard it is, and the good things that come from it," he said.

He majored in biology and decided quickly he wanted to be a college professor. Following his bachelor's degree, he earned his master's, also at the College of William and Mary, and then his doctorate at Mississippi State.

A rock art spider rests on the University of Akron emblem on the coffee table in President Gary Miller’s office. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal] © Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS A rock art spider rests on the University of Akron emblem on the coffee table in President Gary Miller’s office. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

Miller worked in teaching and research positions at Mississippi State, Weber State University and the University of Mississippi, eventually taking on administrative roles as a new challenge.

a group of people sitting together smiling for the camera: Gary Miller, president of University of Akron, and his wife, Georgia Nix Miller, talk about the decision to come to Akron in his Buchtel Hall office on Wednesday.  [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal] © Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS Gary Miller, president of University of Akron, and his wife, Georgia Nix Miller, talk about the decision to come to Akron in his Buchtel Hall office on Wednesday. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

Along the way, he found spiders.

As an ecologist, Miller was focused on the evolution of diversity and forest ecosystems. Spiders made the nicest model for his research. And if he had any fears of spiders prior to using them as research subjects, those clearly subsided. Actually, that might be an understatement.

Making friends while camping

Some decades ago, Miller was on a camping trip in Texas when he came across a tarantula he wanted to take home.

How big was it? Miller holds out his hands and cups them toward each other. A small melon could fit in the space between.

The only problem: Miller didn't have a container to put it in.

No matter, he had a tent. Problem solved. Miller put the tarantula inside the tent, and then went to sleep. Yes, inside the tent. His biggest worry? Rolling over on the giant arachnid and squishing it.

"It was fine," Miller insisted. "It didn't bother me and I didn't bother it, and it was still alive in the morning. I did get it back to the lab."

Telling the story last week from the yellow love seat in his campus office, which features a footlong silver spider candy dish on the coffee table, it was clear his wife was hearing it for the first time.

But she's always known about his unwillingness to disturb a creature that isn't bothering him.

It became a problem, she said, when they tried selling a home in Mississippi that had a number of buyer-deterring eight-legged dwellers on the outside windows that they never bothered to sweep away.

"The Realtor called me," Nix Miller said, "'Georgia, you have got to tell Gary that he must get rid of those spiders.' They had built webs outside and Gary, he just would not touch them."

They acquiesced, and two days later, their house sold.

'She had a better car than me'

The first time Miller asked his future wife out on a date, she said fine — but only if he took her to the spring Ole Miss football game.

"Which is a practice game," Miller noted. "This is how much she loved football."

She also insisted on meeting him at the game.

"I wouldn't even let him pick me up," she said. "I went and met him. I was very independent."

That was just fine with Miller.

"I was glad, because she had a better car than me," he said.

Nix Miller grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, about 150 miles south of the university, during the Civil Rights Movement, although her mother's hometown in western Pennsylvania often brought her through Ohio as a child.

Her father was an orthopedist, and was the first doctor in the area to integrate his waiting room, she said.

When another doctor pulled her father aside to tell him, "We don't do that here," her father replied, "Well, I do."

"That dialogue has always been an important one in my family growing up, and a progressive attitude toward that," she said. "So I think Gary and I carry that forward."

She spent her professional career working in underserved communities, focusing on support for young women and girls.

After earning two degrees from Ole Miss, including a master's in English literature, Nix Miller founded a non-profit, Family Crisis Services of Northwest Mississippi. Nearly 30 years later, it still serves and advocates for survivors of sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence.

After Miller was appointed chancellor of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, Nix Miller and retired HGTV President Judy Girard founded a school for girls in the city.

"We felt the best way to change the community was to begin working with the young women," Nix Miller said.

She is eager to get involved in Akron and has already toured the I Promise School, although she has no interest in starting another school.

"We spent years getting that going," she said.

Ms. Kitty and an E-Sports chair

The Millers, who now have three children and five grandchildren, had no intention of leaving Wisconsin.

Miller was appointed chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2014, and in mid-2019, enrollment was growing, and the snow had grown on them.

But word got to them — three times, Nix Miller notes — that the University of Akron needed a new leader.

"We did have a set of skills and experiences we thought would work," Miller said.

They came to town under the radar and agreed to participate in the closed search process and take it one step at a time.

"When they offered, we were very excited about it," he said.

Miller drove the moving van himself with their 16-year-old cat, Ms. Kitty, riding shotgun.

They've been staying in an apartment through the house hunt, much to Ms. Kitty's delight, Nix Miller said, as the elderly cat doesn't have to go far to find one of her humans.

They've kept busy, with the house hunt and Miller taking over as president in early October. He has already launched a strategic planning process and reorganized top leadership positions.

They go out to eat frequently, part of their tried-and-true way of getting to know a new community.

"We have this funny little test where, if they recognize us — not as in President Miller, but just, 'Oh, you're back again,' then we kind of mark them, OK, we'll go back there," Nix Miller said. "But it's not just a test of the restaurants. We want to be out and about and see what people are talking about."

Miller has settled into his office as well, adorning his shelves with autographed Green Bay Packers mini helmets and a copy of the "Ecology" textbook he co-authored.

On his first campus tour following the announcement of his appointment, Miller visted the E-Sports lab and, admiring the aerodynamic gaming chairs, mentioned he would like one for his office.

"There were a lot of people in this building that didn't think I was serious about that," he said.

When he took over the job, the team rolled into his office with his very own E-Sports chair.

"I feel like I'm really fast when I'm in this chair," he said. "I can type faster, think faster. The whole thing has transformed my life."

It's hardly the only part of their lives that has transformed in the last six months.

"We had no intention of leaving Wisconsin," Nix Miller said. "But it's been just a lovely adventure so far. I feel like this is where we should be."

Contact education reporter Jennifer Pignolet at jpignolet@thebeaconjournal.com, at 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.

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©2020 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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