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Ted Miller, HIllsdale College’s director of science labs, spends time with stu­dents in labs. Ted Miller | Courtesy

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.”