Walter Dale Miller. Not Walter D. Miller. Not Walter Miller. Walter Dale Miller was at his core a Cowboy from West River, a shrewd politician, and a kind, generous man. He had a unique ability to be all those things at the same time and without an internal or external conflict.
My experiences with Walter Dale occurred when I was an intern for State Representatives Hal Wick and Ron Miller in 1979, working for Governor Mickelson from 1987-1993, and when I ran into Governor Miller after he had left public life.
Cowboy: Did he even own a pair of tennis shoes or dress shoes? I can’t recall him ever not being in a suit, cowboy boots, and having his hat nearby. But, Walter Dale was more than a guy dressing like a cowboy. He epitomized the “man of few words” image of a West River rancher.
Representative Ron Miller (no relation) was a legislator who read every single bill submitted and prepared amendments for nearly every bill. Some were clean-up language, some were substantive. But, I could see the “value” of Ron Miller as a legislator. Hal Wick was a supply-sider before it was popular. He had a single minded focus on lower taxes in general and eliminating taxes he thought were punitive on economic activity. Again, I could see the “value” of Hal Wick as a legislator.
But, Walter Dale was different. While the Assistant Majority Leader, he seldom talked on the floor, in committee, or even in caucus. Yet, I heard over and over in private conversations of lobbyists and legislators “What does Walter Dale think? Is he going to oppose us? Is he going to support us?” My first reaction was “What difference does it make? He doesn’t do or say anything.”
As the session went along, I realized he is really a cowboy on his horse moving the cattle along at a slow but steady pace. Getting one of his “cow hands” like Bud Wood to speak out here. A gentle nudge there. A private conversation here. And, on occasion, a snap of the whip. But, things moved where Walter Dale wanted things to go.
Shrewd Politician: At the core, his shrewdness mirrors the cowboy in him. Two times he said the same thing to me.
The first time, I suspect my boss Ron Miller wasn’t heeding Walter Dale’s advice because he initiated a short conversation with me, a lowly intern, where he said “Ron is spreading himself too thin.” I don’t know what he expected me to do with that admonition and I don’t recall what I did with it but the wisdom stuck with me and my impression of Walter Dale as I’ll discuss soon.
The second time was when I got an email from Lt. Governor Walter Dale Miller to come see him right away. My first reaction was I was in trouble as I’d never heard of anyone getting such a blunt order to see him. I get to his office, going through is then personal secretary and now widow Pat, and enter nervously and he says, “I see you are flying with the Governor. He is spreading himself too thin. You need to do more so he will do less.” Meeting over. Again, I’m not sure how he expected me to bridle the race horse that Governor Mickelson was but it again stuck with me.
Why do I tell those two stories? By observation, I learned that Walter Dale didn’t fight every fight. On some issues I thought he’d think were significant, he seemed rather passive. However, over time, I realized still waters run deep and I didn’t know what was happening under the water. Or, it was a man picking his fight. Walter Dale never seemed to lose those he chose to fight. Once I figured that out about Walter Dale, I came to realize why lobbyists and fellow legislators always asked “Where is Walt going to be on this issue?” If Walter Dale chose to fight on an issue, depending on which side he was on, it was either a Godsend or a curse.
Kind and Generous: I could simply say in six years working for Governor Mickelson, I never saw him anything but kind and generous, even to those who were opposing him. But, that seems to be insufficient. So I’ll tell you a story.
In 1991, my wife was expecting our last child and it was a problem pregnancy where she was on bed rest for the last six weeks. During that time, it was the end of the legislature and of course hours were intense and long. I tried to check in periodically but it was before cell phones so I was always trying to use an empty desk and the phones outside the Lt. Governor’s office was usually my go-to place because those people were usually around the Legislature. Walt overheard my conversation telling my wife I couldn’t bring her what she wanted. When I hung up, Walt just simply said “I need you to do something for me. Go home for an hour.” It wasn’t a request. It was an order. And it was in the last days of the Legislature where nobody looked away for a second much less left the building for an hour. But, the underlying kindness was overwhelming. I wanted to say thanks but he was already moving about his business. The old cowboy steered the “cow” and the cow did what the cowboy expected. Pretty simple.
To conclude, I need to tell one last story about Walt. I worked in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. We were not only close to Governor Mickelson but our boss Roland Dolly and former boss Ron Reed were also on the plane. Either the morning after or the day after that, now Governor Miller showed up in our office first thing. He didn’t come as our boss. He didn’t come to give us a pep talk or anything like it. He came as a friend also grieving and just told us in a few words that while we still had important work to fulfill Governor Mickelson’s and Rolly’s mission, we lost our friends. So worry more about comforting each other than the work. When he left, most of just went to our desk and cried. If I didn’t love him before that, I fell in love with him that morning.
Walter Dale Miller, you were a great legislator (twenty continuous years in the House of Representatives), a great Lt. Governor (6 years), a great Governor (2 years), a great statesman these last 22 years. Together it is 50 years serving our state and making it better.
But, more than that, you were a great friend. I didn’t accept the invite to your upcoming birthday because I knew I was coming but to make sure I remember you on October 5th. You did good old cowboy.
While I’m sad you are gone from us, I’m also wishing I could be there when you and our former colleagues greet you. They’ll be a jabbering and you’ll say little. But, you’ll have a heck of a birthday party with them. Please greet them for me for I miss them. We’ll do our best to comfort Pat and your family. I wouldn’t want you to spread yourself too thin.
Eternal rest grant unto Walter Dale Miller, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May Walter Dale Rest in Peace. Amen.