We are sad to hear of the passing of a close friend and colleague, Pat Miller. From 1981-2018, she led the ISU Lectures program. A shrewd negotiator, fund raiser, and storyteller, Pat attracted an incredibly diverse array of leaders, politicians, scientists, authors, activists, and entertainers to ISU. The fruits of that labor thankfully have been preserved in our collection of Lecture recordings, which now include more than 1,000 online items thanks to a recent grant from the National Recording Preservation Foundation (NRPF). In preparation for the grant, Rosie and I reached out to Pat to get more information about the recordings and her work, which led to several great stories and the obvious need to sit down for an in-depth oral history. Sadly, our first session didn’t last long as Pat’s voice gave out, as it was prone to do given the complications of ALS. A second session was scheduled but canceled due to her health. We decided it might be best for her to write out her experiences and share that way. Unfortunately, the final touches on manuscript remain unfinished. Nevertheless, I though it would be nice to share what we do have from that first session together. What follows is a transcript of our talk on December 18th, 2020. You can also listen here.
DH: This is Daniel Hartwig an interviewer for the Iowa State University Oral History Project. Today is December 18th, 2020. I’m interviewing Pat Miller via Zoom. Good afternoon.
PM: Good afternoon Daniel.
DH: Please begin by talking about your background and what drew you to Iowa State.
PM: I began working at Iowa State in April of 1981 after graduating in 1980 from Iowa State. I had always been active in public events and political events and the Lectures program was a natural fit, which consisted of planning for a main speaker, the finances, and all the logistics of an event. So was a natural fit even though I had no background before that in an actual university lectures program other than attending speakers like Germaine Greer, feminist scholar, activist comedian Dick Gregory, activists Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, and even Scotty of Star Trek fame in 1980, my senior year.
DH: How did you work with the lectures committee and what goals did the lecture committee or the program set?
PM: The lectures program was founded by the Shakespeare scholar and English professor, James Lowry, twenty-five years before I came on the scene. So they were helping him transition to retirement and so they brought me in as a non-faculty manager of the program. There was a faculty chair of a committee made up of, and they still operate this way, it’s a very large committee of eleven students appointed by student government and then faculty representing each of the colleges and individual staff folks from student affairs, honors, and other areas. So there is broad expertise in every topic and speaker under the sun. And so I managed their selection process and worked in the office to develop contacts and information and suggestions and help folks who made requests to the committee because their other charge was funding student organizations requests for speakers. So, for example, you have Engineers Week over the years we hosted Grant Imahara, the engineer who worked on Star Wars movies, and Bill Nye, The Science Guy. I would manage maintaining contact with potential speakers, as well as the agents working with speakers, and managing the student organizations requests from the committee.
DH: Talk a little bit about the nitty gritty or the behind the scenes details in terms of these negotiations. What were some of the challenges, the hardest parts of scheduling and doing other logistics?
PM: Well, being able to, you know somebody will complain about people going off on a tangent and I’ve always described that as my job description because you had to be able to stop and pivot to a topic that would work. For example, students would come in, I had engineers week come in five years in a row requesting Bill Nye, The Science Guy. So much so that I would say OK here’s the financial arrangement. You put that together. Here’s the case for them and make that presentation to the committee and the committee will approve it. We know because they’ve been trying to get Bill Nye, The Science Guy, themself and is very hard to book. So I would call the agent and say hello it’s us again. The Engineers Week would like to have Bill Nye, The Science Guy and the fifth year I just joked about it because I assumed we have that turned down again. But you have to keep trying, make sure to check the door, make sure the door might open this year. And I said to the agent. Hello it’s Pat Miller and it’s April and so it’s time to make that request for a Bill Nye again. And guess who’s here? The engineers are here. And she started laughing. The agents started laughing and said put this together and I’ll make him take it. So that’s the year he finally came–the fifth year. But my favorite story of the longest time it took is Margaret Atwood, who I took twenty-five years to bring her to campus finally in 2016. So that’s my longest one. Part of the process is finding a key for somebody like Margaret Atwood, the writer of The Handmaid’s Tale, if any of your listeners don’t know that. Finding a key to catch their eye when they’re in demand. And I would say that to students and faculty alike that this person could be in a hundred different places when you want him or her. And so why should he or she come here instead of going someplace else that would be more convenient? Because above all, Iowa is in the flyover land unless you’re running for president and so it’s harder for them to get here. So Margaret Atwood I wrote her. I have the oldest letter I sent her the first one, 1987. And then 1988. And we started. She was a bird watcher, so I would throw in migrating birds at Redrock or something she could see a bird that was in the area. And then one year in the 1990s, I threw in and if you can come early in the year, the students would take you to the Iowa State Fair, where you could see a sculptured, 3,000 pound butter cow. I left that at the end of the letter and signed off. And then she happened to come to the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in the fall and I called them and asked if they would introduce me to her. We’re trying to get her to lecture at Iowa State. And they said sure come on in. And so I always give this as an example to students saying say one memorable thing and then the invitation will stick in their brain. And so they took me up after it to talk during a book signing and cut me in to the table where she was signing books. I said hi, I’m Pat Miller from Iowa State. Our faculty and students would love to have you come to campus. She shook my hand and looked up at me and said ‘Ah, the butter cow.’ So it’s always important to have something like that.
DH: Picking up on that a little bit, if it wasn’t necessarily a known location or name were there other challenges say financial or…
PM: Oh, financial. Always financial. We have a good budget but nothing is ever enough. I mean the speaker is a very expensive once they get famous. We literally have had speakers prices go up elsewhere in negotiating. So once had a Washington D.C. agency over the border in Virginia say to me once we had negotiated for a speaker and got what we had she said to me you know you’re a very good negotiator. And I said no, that’s all the money we had. So if you’re you don’t get obnoxious about it you just say what I would do is call an agent and say or a speaker and say I’m sorry this is what we have funding available for. You know, you understand if they decline, but there are a number of speakers out there who are over a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Yeah it’s it’s crazy. So you have to say to the students, ok, you be extra charming at dinner. You be extra enthusiastic at the introduction to the speaker. That’s one of the things we do have is, if possible, a dinner with students and usually they are charming and informed and articulate and the speaker gets energized and I can’t tell you how many we’ve had come in and say, ‘explain this political caucus situation to me. The presidential caucus process.’ Then I still remember sitting there at at Aunt Maud’s with a number of African-American students who were part of Black Student Alliance. And we had the Editor of the magazine, Essence, who was sitting back and looking at the students with a smile on their face and they were from St. Louis, Chicago, not Iowa, and they had obviously studied the intricate details of the presidential caucus system here in Iowa. And he was clearly impressed with their connection to the whole process and their expertise in the area. That kind of thing is wonderful. For example, with Ambassador Joe Wilson, you may recall he served the under the Bush administration. He was brought in as a consultant on whether or not yellow cake, the pre-nuclear waste, the substance that prove somebody was making nuclear weapons. He was brought in to analyze that. He has quite the sterling ambassadorial resumé. We had nine students at dinner with him. I finally just said, ok we’re going to give you a moment to eat your dinner while the students explain how they’re going to save the world. Each one of them will speak and tell you their major and how they’re going to save it all. So it made for a wonderful exchange because the students are surprised that they’re going to save the world, but then are always up to the task at hand. We have very impressive students.
DH: Most if not all of the lectures were recorded, correct?
PM: Many are recorded. I wouldn’t say most. More than half. More than half are recorded. People who have contractual media agreements and can’t be recorded. And then people who don’t wish to be recorded because they’re giving the lecture multiple places. I had Helen Thomas, former White House reporter call me and say please don’t put it online because I’m giving the same talk for other places and I don’t want the word getting out. And then others who have had bad experiences. For example, Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist who was a major speaker came in and did not want to be recorded because he had had a university in New England sell his videotape to a public radio station and so he wouldn’t sign anything. It’s interesting. So the process is interesting. Some people just don’t want to be recorded.
DH: Was there any lecture that you wish had been recorded that was so profound or interesting that it was a real shame that it didn’t?
PM: Oh many of them. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Stephen Jay Gould. I’m I’m really disappointed in that one because he was remarkable. But then we have Noam Chomsky and many, many that were recorded. Margaret Atwood didn’t wish to be recorded either. So it’s amazing.
Unfortunately, that’s all we were able to record that day, having only just scratched the surface of her fascinating life and work. Nevertheless, circumstances like this reassure us in our work dealing with loss and the importance of preservation. We’ll miss you Pat but your legacy lives on.
An obituary for Pat is available on the Adams Funeral Home website.