FARGO — The man who spearheaded the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection (GRHC) at North Dakota State University is about to wrap up a career as one of the longest serving employees in NDSU history.
Michael M. Miller, 79, director and bibliographer of the collection at the NDSU Libraries, will retire on Dec. 1 after more than 55 years at NDSU.
Miller joins Henry L. Bolley and C.B. Waldron in the distinction.
Only Waldron’s service was longer by six months, while Bolley’s time at NDSU was nine months shorter than Miller’s.
Both Bolley and Waldron were hired in 1890, the year the school was founded as North Dakota Agricultural College.
Miller told The Forum he plans to volunteer for GRHC and for documentary projects with Prairie Public, so will still be involved.
“They’re going to let me keep my office so I’ll be okay there,” Miller said with a laugh.
His start at NDSU in 1967 can be linked back to an event two years prior, when Strasburg, North Dakota-born bandleader Lawrence Welk received an honorary doctorate from NDSU.
Miller, also from Strasburg, knew Welk and his family and was invited by then-NDSU President H. R. Albrecht to a dinner for the event.
There, the president told Miller to let him know if he ever needed a job, and in 1967, Miller took him up on the offer.
He called the president and without an interview, was hired to teach library science and work in the NDSU library.
In 1978, President Laurel Loftsgard asked him to create the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection.
To this day, Miller has never had an actual job interview, as his time with NDSU marched on.
Miller took on other duties, writing a monthly column since 1996 for North Dakota and South Dakota weekly newspapers, In Touch with Prairie Living.
He plans to continue that as long as he’s able.
He has served as executive producer since 1999 to 10 award-winning documentaries about Germans from Russia for Prairie Public.
The latest documentary, still in production, focuses on the Welk Homestead State Historic Site in Strasburg, the birthplace of Lawrence Welk, Miller said.
Other important projects include his role in securing the Lawrence Welk Collection at the NDSU Archives; the Dakota Memories Oral History Project; helping create the Tri-County Tourism Alliance in Emmons, Logan and McIntosh Counties; and serving as president of the Friends of the Welk Homestead.
Miller also directed the Journey to the Homeland Tour for more than 20 plus years, a heritage tour to Germany and Ukraine for people to visit their ancestral villages in Ukraine.
More than 700 people traveled on the 23 tours led by Miller, from 1996 to 2019.
“For a lot of those people it’s a lifetime experience, walking on the soil… where their ancestors once lived,” Miller said.
Miller’s own family history can be traced on his mother’s side to one of the Catholic Black Sea villages near Odessa, Ukraine. Her family came to Strasburg, North Dakota in 1889.
His father’s family came to North Dakota from the Catholic village of Krasna, which was in Romania at the time, in 1894.
“I grew up speaking the German language, which I'm glad I did, because it's helped me with the work,” he said.
Thomas Isern, a longtime friend and NDSU distinguished professor of history, said Miller has dedicated his life to documenting Germans from Russia and created a world-class research repository at NDSU.
“With NDSU as his platform and base, he has become the consummate Bison, interested in all university affairs, absorbed with our accomplishments in lab and field. He is a paragon of public service,” Isern said.
Miller wants to ensure his legacy, so he established an endowment for the GRHC by designating the NDSU Foundation as beneficiary of his retirement account.
The endowment will provide perpetual funding for staffing and projects dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing stories about Germans from Russia in North Dakota.
“For the future, we're in very good hands,” Miller said.
In lieu of a party, flowers, or cards, Miller has requested that donations be made to the Germans from Russia Fund at this NDSU Foundation link.
Checks, with “German from Russia Fund” in the memo line, can also be mailed to the NDSU Foundation at 1241 North University Drive, Fargo, ND, 58102.