A resident of the Indiana Masonic Home sat at the piano in one of the home’s lounges, playing a few favorite hymns.
He covered performance-worthy renditions of “Amazing Grace” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer”.
The resident, Donald Miller, will tell you he plays “only for his own amazement,” but the feeling and emotion of his talent come out with each crescendo; and to any passers-by, his musicality and talent that have been honed for most of a century are obvious.
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A woman walking by stopped to listen to him play, getting a tear in her eye. She didn’t want to stop him to give him compliments, she only wanted to enjoy a few minutes of immersion into the impromptu concert.
To say Miller knows how to capture a moment would be to describe how he’s lived his life — a life impressively long and well lived. He marked his 100th birthday on Oct. 4 and sat down to reflect on what makes a good life and his secrets for staying young.
Miller — known by many as “Morris” — celebrated the occasion of his centennial with a party at Center United Methodist Church on the southside hosted by his children, Betty Hoffmeyer, who lives in Greenwood, and Don Miller, a retired educator, who lives in Michigan. Miller also has four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Growing up on southside
Miller grew up on the southside in the area of Garfield Park and Pleasant Run Parkway. Later, he lived with his family in Greenwood. He’s lived at the Masonic home for four years. He’s attended both Southport Presbyterian Church and Edgewood United Methodist Church.His father, Charles, worked as a superintendent at Central States Bridge and Structural Steel Co., which built steel infrastructure for highways and many buildings in downtown Indianapolis including L.S. Ayres and Blocks department stores and stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.His dad also fixed friends’ cars in the backyard.
“He was a backyard mechanic,” Miller explained, remembering watching people bring in early model Fords for his dad to tinker with.
Miller’s recollection of his own career is like taking a walk down memory lane for anyone who grew up in Indianapolis in the mid-20th century.
One of his first jobs after he graduated from Southport High School in 1933 was working at a savings and loan. His dad advised him to find work that was less seasonal and more stable than the steel business, which often laid people off.
Heeding his dad’s advice, Miller made about $12 per week at the savings and loan as a clerk.
Miller met Margaret Clayton at Edgewood United Methodist Church, where they both attended. They got married in 1937.
Margaret worked at the Real Silk Hosiery mill and at Blocks department store in downtown Indianapolis.
“She was a good Christian girl,” Miller said. He remembers his wife’s excellent cooking. Their daughter still cooks some of Margaret’s recipes. His wife also was involved in their kids’ activities like Scouts and PTA, he said.
Faith and music
The church and his faith have always played an important role in his life and fostered his great passion for music. For 30 years, he was a part of the Missionaires Quartet through Edgewood. They sang throughout the state and in Chicago and Buffalo, New York. He also sang in the Scottish Rite choir for three years.He sings in the choir at the Masonic Home and frequently plays the piano for his Bible study group.Miller was a salesman, working most of his career at L.S. Ayres downtown, where he was one of the first of its employees to sell television sets at the department store. He also worked as a piano salesman for Wilking music and Riddick piano companies.
At one point, he managed the whole southeast section of the building, which included the departments that sold eyeglasses, stationery, candy, hosiery, the pharmacy and sheet music. He also worked at the Greenwood Park Mall store.
He was retired from Ayres after about 25 years.
He didn’t get tired of retail. Later, Miller worked part time at the JCPenney store in Greenwood, selling electronics and furniture. He continued in that job until he was 85 in 2000. His last job was working in store maintenance, cleaning and making sure everything was shipshape.
“I always was able to deal with people,” he said of his career in sales, a skill he said has served him well in life.
He watched many changes in the retail industry, noting that some weren’t for the better. For example, the concepts of customer loyalty and employee loyalty changed a great deal in the generations since department stores were family-owned and operated.
“Trying to make a living got to be a different ballgame,” he said.
Today’s retail world shows much less in its expectations of employees, who often don’t know as much about the merchandise as people used to. By the time he quit working, L.S. Ayres had been bought by two different corporations before it was finally merged with Macy’s.
On living well
The Millers always worked to make sure their faith was a strong influence in the home where they raised their kids. Having a relationship with God is one of the most important things, Miller said.“It gives you a sense of confidence and sense of what we’re here for: for the love of our fellow man,” he said.His beliefs, combined with a positive outlook on life, are part of what keep Miller active now. He credits keeping a positive outlook, as well as maintaining an interest in world affairs in keeping his mind and spirit active.
“Developing friendships and trying to keep an open mind to new ideas, having a positive outlook is one of the most important things you can do,” he said.
And of course, he has his music. He started taking piano lessons when he was a kid; his mother played piano and encouraged his playing when he was growing up. Continuing to play — he also has a keyboard on which he practices in his room at the Masonic home — has helped him stay active and keep his mind sharp, he said.
His earliest memory dates back to 1918: He remembers his grandfather holding his watch up to the youngster’s ear so that he could listen to it ticking.
His grandfather, Benedict Miller, was a veteran of the Civil War.
Looking back, forward
Miller says he’s watched society go from driving Model T’s to using cellphones and the Internet and marvels at how many good things have come along in his lifetime from companies in Indiana such as Rolls-Royce, Indiana’s research universities that contributed to engineering breakthroughs such as Purdue University, to NASA. He remembers the great moments of history in the 20th century and where he was when he first heard Pearl Harbor was bombed and when man walked on the moonHe notes changes in the media — especially music, and how it’s transmitted and purchased, electric pianos, televisions — so much didn’t even exist when he was growing up and is the norm now.While society has benefited immeasurably from the innovations of technology, other things have gotten worse.
Among the changes he’s most noticed in looking back on the past century, Miller says the most striking is the disintegration of the family.
When he was growing up, families and communities took care of one another while also valuing self-sufficiency. Today, neighborhoods aren’t as close as they used to be. Younger people don’t respect their elders in the same ways.
“When you look back, family life was different,” he said. “I’d like to see family life more firmly established.”
He notes a rapid change in the standard of living that people expect. Younger adults expect to be able to afford a lifestyle it took their parents or grandparents much longer to attain, he said.
“The standard of living is so high,” he said. “The average worker can’t make a living on his own,” requiring more couples to both have full-time jobs to make ends meet by 21st century standards.
The fact that he just turned 100 only recently sank in at his family’s party. Now, he’s looking forward to 101.
“Retirement is not just a stop,” he said. “You’ve got to be an optimist and put your life in the hands of God. That’s the most important thing.”
Donald “Morris” Miller, a longtime southside and Johnson County resident, turned 100 this fall. He attributes much of his longevity to a strong faith.
Here are a couple of his favorite Bible verses.
Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
Romans 8:31: “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”