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Alumnus has hiked, climbed, flown, and zipped his way to 103

Doris Baird and Robert Miller married in 1943. (Photo courtesy of Kingsport Times News) 

Dr. Robert W. Miller of Kingsport, Tennessee, marks his 103rd birthday Friday, Oct. 29. Possibly the oldest living graduate of the Class of 1939, he was married to Doris Baird Miller, a member of the Class of 1942, from 1943 until her passing in 2019. The two were profiled as models “for what marriage, love and commitment mean” in a special edition of the Kingsport Times News in June 2018, just a few weeks after their 75th wedding anniversary.

Born in Chester, South Carolina, Miller grew up in the Chester Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He majored in chemistry, physics, and mathematics at Erskine, graduating summa cum laude. He played basketball, ran track, served on the staff of both The Mirror and The Arrow, and was active in the Philomathean Literary Society, the debate society, Double Octet (a choral ensemble), and other campus organizations.

“In my freshman year at Erskine College in 1935, I developed an interest in choral singing and joined the choir of the Due West ARP Church,” Miller explains. “There was an ulterior motive. Rules at Erskine were very strict at that time. Boys and girls were not allowed to be together on the Sabbath. However, if both sang in the choir, they could be together at choir practice, which occurred twice on the Sabbath.”

After a year of graduate study at what was then Clemson College, Miller enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to earn a doctorate in chemistry. As a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve, he was called to active duty during World War II, serving at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., from 1942 to 1946. After their marriage in 1943, Robert and Doris Miller attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, which was then led by the famous pastor Peter Marshall. Following Miller’s naval service, the couple returned to Chapel Hill, where he completed his doctoral studies in 1948.

From 1948 until his retirement in 1984, Miller worked for the Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tennessee. During his career with Eastman, he also served as a contributing editor of The Encyclopedia of Chemistry and Technology and became an expert on governmental regulations regarding chemical products and research.

Miller has participated enthusiastically in family life as well as in service to his church and community. His family includes four children, 10 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. A charter member of Preston Hills Presbyterian Church, he worked to establish a Presbyterian retirement community and nursing care facility in Kingsport. He has been recognized for service and leadership in the Lions Club and has been a faithful Erskine volunteer, receiving the Alumni Distinguished Service Award, the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, and membership in the Academic Hall of Fame.

Traveling with his wife throughout the United States as well as in Switzerland and the United Kingdom, Miller trained for and pursued mountain climbing and hiking over the years. He has also enjoyed zip-lining and airplane flight.

To mark his 100th birthday, Miller zip-lined at Bays Mountain Park while his wife cheered him on. On his next birthday, he added a couple of items to a list that begins with his 1930 flight in an open cockpit biplane. As of September 2020, that list is titled “Bob Miller’s Bucket List of Flights in Unusual Aircraft.”

“On my 101st birthday, I had two unusual flights,” he recalls. “Danny Sorrell, who had built a small aerobatic plane from a kit, took me up from the Virginia Highland Airport, and during this flight we did a full barrel roll and a loop, neither of which I had done before. After that, Roscoe Trivett took me on a long flight in his Bellanca high wind monoplane, a tail dragger. He let me fly the plane for about 40 minutes.”

A full barrel roll and a loop? Flying a plane? Not many people could top that birthday celebration—at any age.

Then, just a few weeks before his 102nd birthday, Miller says, “I added an unusual item to my list, a flight in a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress named ‘Sentimental Journey.’ It had pictures of Betty Grable (in swimsuit) painted on each side of the nose. It was deployed to the Pacific but arrived too late to do any bombing. It was occasionally used by General MacArthur to fly from place to place.”

Vice President for Advancement and Alumni Relations Paul Bell, who has enjoyed corresponding with Miller, notes that this remarkable member of the Erskine family celebrated his 102nd birthday by leading a hike. “I’m always amazed and inspired by Bob and his zeal for life,” Bell says.

Robert Miller has hiked, climbed, flown, and zipped through a long and active life while remaining anchored to his church, family, alma mater, and community. Congratulations to a standout centenarian!

Robert and Doris Miller shortly after their 75th wedding anniversary (Photo courtesy of Kingsport Times News)
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