Robert Miller Sr. leaves legacy of love for law and community

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After he retired from the St. Joseph Superior Court, Judge Robert L. Miller Sr. began his second act.

The man who grew up during the Great Depression and served in World War II and the Korean War put his energy and ideas into helping South Bend’s homeless veterans. In 2009, he founded Miller’s Vets and The Last Salute, two programs designed to stabilize struggling veterans and honor the war dead. Also, he bought and oversaw the renovations on a building for homeless veterans in South Bend that today carriers his name as The Robert L. Miller Sr. Veteran’s Center.

Miller, who established a distinguished career in the law and then devoted his skills and passion to advocating and championing military veterans, died peacefully at his South Bend home April 27. He was 98.

“We’re aching a little bit more because we lost one of our best,” said Damon Leichty, partner at Barnes & Thornburg in South Bend. “Judge Miller was part of the fabric of our community.”

Miller grew up in Indianapolis, the son of a widowed mother, and arrived in South Bend to play football at the University of Notre Dame. Although too many sprained ankles kept him from retaining his place on the roster, he stayed at the university, taking on all kinds of odd jobs to pay tuition, and completed a degree in accounting in 1942.

He subsequently was commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy and by 1944 was ordered aboard the U.S.S. Essex CV-9. Serving on the aircraft carrier in the South Pacific, Miller was wounded in one of two Japanese suicide kamikazes. He earned numerous awards, including the Purple Heart.

Returning to South Bend after the war, Miller enrolled in the Notre Dame Law School and graduated cum laude in 1947. Notre Dame recognized Miller in 2011 with the Rev. William Corby, C.S.C. Award and a lifetime membership in the “University of Notre Dame 1842 Loyalty Society.”

Notre Dame Law School dean Nell Jessup Newton remembered Miller’s contributions to the legal profession. 

“Judge Miller represented the best of us,” Newton said. “He was a great man and a fine lawyer, and his selfless public service and love for his fellow vets made all of us here at Notre Dame Law School very proud. He will be missed.”

Following graduation, Miller went to work in private practice, but his career was interrupted by a call to active duty for the Korean War. He resumed his practice after retiring as a Lieutenant Commander in ten Naval Reserves in 1953 and was eventually appointed as the fourth judge of the St. Joseph Superior Court.

Leichty met Miller when he clerked for the judge’s son, Judge Robert L. Miller Jr., of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. The young attorney appreciated the irony when he would pick up the phone and hear the elder Miller say, “This is the judge, is Bob in?”

The bond between father and son, Leichty said, was strong. Both of them shared a passion for the law and for their community.

Aladean DeRose, South Bend city attorney and solo practitioner, encountered Miller as opposing counsel. He was cordial and civil to other attorneys and, in court, he knew the law and had a good grasp of how people perceive the law. 

“He was deceptive because he was so easy to work with but very tough advocate,” DeRose said. “He knew his stuff.”

She also noted part of Miller’s legacy is the veteran’s programs he founded, which “but for his life wouldn’t have existed.”

Miller had selected Chuck Lahey, retired major felony public defender in South Bend, to succeed him as chair of his veteran’s organizations. The judge sent Lahey an email the day before his death regarding the details of a ceremony planned for May 28 to formally hand over the operations.

Lahey became friends with Miller while helping the judge prepare the food at a picnic for a local softball team that included the attorney and Miller’s son, Robert Jr. Hospitality was a hallmark of Miller’s personality. He regularly parked his recreational vehicle in the lot at Notre Dame home football games and welcomed to his party anyone who came by.

But for the veterans, Miller felt a special empathy. The pair of kamikaze attacks on his ship killed several crew members and reinforced to Miller that those who join the military take a pledge to die for their country, Lahey said. The judge felt allowing veterans to remain homeless was no way to treat those people who were willing to lay down their lives defending the United States.

During his time aboard the aircraft carrier, Miller came to love storms. He said the rain prevented the suicide kamikazes from flying and taking aim at his ship, so that was the time when he could relax and sleep soundly.

Fittingly, on the day he died, South Bend experienced inclement weather. It stormed then snowed.

“He was a giant who excelled at everything he did and touched, including service to his country and community,” Indiana Justice Geoffrey Slaughter said. “His legacy is an inspiration to his family and all who knew him. He will truly be missed.” 

Miller’s obituary, with visitation and funeral service details, can be found here.

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