One might not readily connect playing the organ and renovating old cars with a scientist, but there happens to be an individual in Hillsdale College’s science department who fits this description. Ted Miller can often be found in the labs of the Strosacker Science Center, sometimes whistling a tune.
Miller — affectionately called “Mr. T” by faculty and students — has served as the director of Hillsdale College’s science labs for almost 15 years, and his responsibilities include organization and cleaning, as well as preparation and facilitation for lab sessions. Miller spent about three decades with the Dow Chemical Company, where he has more than 20 patents. He also keeps up a YouTube channel, “killarneyguy,” which has over 100,000 views and a wide range of content.
His love for science, he says, began during his school days in Detroit.
“I grew up poor in Detroit, in a bad neighborhood,” he said. “But my parents invested in my education; they wanted me to go to private schools. I did well in there and got top grades.”
Miller went on to study physics at the University of Detroit, and he received his Master’s in biophysics from Michigan State University. Eventually, he went into a PhD program, but after he and his wife, Cathie, had their first son, he interviewed for a position with the Dow Chemical Company in Midland, Michigan.
Miller had his wisdom teeth removed before the interview, so he wasn’t himself going in. When the interviewer told him they were only looking for chemists and chemical engineers, not biophysicists, Miller was upset because he had a solid background in chemistry. But all turned out well for him.
“To my shock, I got a letter from Dow to come up to Midland,” he said. “I warn you, time goes by fast. I had a 30-year career in research at Dow.”
In regards to his more than 20 patents with Dow, Miller says having a patent is like having children: You can’t pick a favorite because they all mean so much to you. Some of these patents are measurement technology and instrumentation.
“The hard part is convincing an external company that Ted Miller’s gizmo has value and people are going to want to buy it in large numbers, but I was fortunate enough to do that,” he said. “Six of my inventions came to be sold commercially. They’re not new materials or plastics; instead, they’re devices that measure or do something electronic.”
In 2004, Miller saw retirement from Dow approaching, but he always loved the academic environment, and he taught physics in the evenings, so he wrote to Frank Steiner, professor of biology and Grewcock Chair of the natural sciences.
“The letter said, ‘I’m this weird guy at Dow Chemical, but I have a lot of patents, and I have teaching experience. I admire Hillsdale. Is there something for me?’ To his credit, he called me and said, ‘There’s nothing right now, but you’re just a weird enough guy that we have this combined role of teaching and lab support. Your Dow background could be perfect for that.’”
That phone call eventually turned into a job offer, and Miller came to Hillsdale in 2005. His “combined role” is a mixture of teaching, lab management, and overseeing student employees in the lab. Miller is in charge of every lab component of the CHM 101 course.
He has about 70 students each semester for the labs, which he says can be colorful and give a physical component which allows students to gain insights into molecules.
Miller says the duties he and his student assistants must perform aren’t always glamorous.
“It’s from grunge to glory,” he said. “We have to do low-level cleaning of test tubes, but the glory end of it is in actually designing labs and having face time with students in the lab. That’s the fun side.”
Gish is currently a teaching assistant, but for her first three years at Hillsdale, she worked with Miller as a lab assistant.
“He’s definitely a model. More than that, he’s a mentor,” she said. “When I first started as a lab assistant, I didn’t really know what was happening. I just got sent to his office. He took me under his wing and explained everything. He has a manner that is very easy and pulls people in.”
Gish says Miller is in tune with the lives and schedules of a Hillsdale student. He “demands a degree of excellence” from students’ work, but he’s always willing to work with students, especially if they have a rough day or week.
“Even if you fall short of expectations, he never makes you feel as though you failed,” she said. “He’s always working with you to become better than you were.”
Professor of Chemistry Lee Baron says Miller does an excellent job of keeping the department’s labs running smoothly. A key thing about him, she says, is that he makes sure every aspect of lab preparation and maintenance is done properly.
Gish and Baron both agree that “joyful” is an excellent description of Miller’s personality and the way he interacts with students and colleagues. Gish says Miller is “one of the most virtuous and genuine people” she has been able to work for professionally. His kind and honest character, she says, is a result of living out his faith professionally and socially.
The word ‘jolly’ in the dictionary has a picture of Mr. T’s face under it. He is the definition of cheerfulness,” Gish said. “If you ever hear someone whistling a really happy tune in the labs, you know that Mr. T is approaching. That’s his advent, his theme.”
Baron says Miller’s joyful and kind attitude affects everything he does for the better.
“The things I respect and enjoy about Ted are that he loves the Lord, he loves his wife, and he loves Hillsdale College,” Baron said. “If you put those things together, the joy he brings to what he does is infectious. It spreads to those around him. Who he is impacts how he does what he does, and the result is a benefit for all.”
But Miller’s joy isn’t only applied to his work for the college. He brings his passion and enthusiasm to his hobbies. Since growing up in Detroit, he has spent time buying and renovating old cars. Over the years, he has restored four Mercedes vehicles, and he posts videos of his cars — along with other zany content — on his YouTube channel, “killarneyguy.” In one of his videos, he drives a British 1954 MG with an inflatable Ronald Reagan as his passenger. He has sold cars to buyers in California, Florida, and even Belgium, a result, he said, of offers he couldn’t refuse.
“Of all the Miller kin, only half have what I call ‘the defective Miller gene,’ which is the love of cars that make no sense,” he said. “Half of the males don’t have that gene, and at a wedding or something, they’ll say, ‘What’s wrong with you guys? Who cares about that?’ I can’t explain the love, but it’s still there.”
Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, his father worked for Ford Motor Company. Miller recalls being excited about how the ’59 Fairlane would look.
“All of us boys had model cars and doted on that. There was nothing else to do; there was no internet; TV had three channels, and it was black and white and nine inches. What else are you going to do? You go out to the garage, you dream about cars.”
At that time, Miller got a job as a church organist to fund his love of fixing and renovating cars. Music never left his life, and he currently serves as the organist for Redeemer Lutheran Church in Jackson. In addition, he directs a men’s choir on the side.
What Miller loves about his job and hobbies especially is the problem solving.
“The irony is that when I have break time at home, I’m miserable because there’s not a problem around me,” he said. “It sounds crazy, but the issues are what I enjoy — when something breaks or when there’s a crunch because the lab is needed tomorrow.”
With his job, Miller applies this love of finding solutions to everything from helping students discover their career path or even grading lab reports.
“There’s a one-page data sheet they need to fill out. They’ll physically do the lab, and I know they’re scared — they don’t want to be there actually,” he said. “It’s when I grade the paper that I really get the thrill because many of them understand; they’ll elaborate on what they’ve said. I’ll write on the bottom, ‘You should major in chemistry,’ rather than whatever you’re doing.”
Baron says Miller is successful at what he does because he knows how to monitor students less and less until they are confident and independent in what they’re doing. That, she says, is the mark of a good educator.
“Ted is an example of a servant leader,” she said. “He’s a solid example of what I consider a good human being. He’s able to impart that to others; it’s amazing. It doesn’t take very long to figure that out.”