GETTING TO KNOW COMMUNITY LEADERS AND BENEFACTORS J. IRWIN AND XENIA MILLER
Joseph Irwin Miller (1909-2004) was born into a prominent Columbus, Indiana, family with business interests in banking, industry, and real estate. Irwin Miller attended Yale University, majoring in Greek and Latin and graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1931. He then received a master’s degree from Oxford University in 1933.
In 1934, Irwin Miller began working at Cummins Engine Company—founded by his great- uncle—which builds diesel engines in Columbus, Indiana. His career began when the firm was still small enough that his responsibilities included opening the daily mail though his innovations in management, marketing, and production brought the firm to profitability and he is credited as a major influence in the company’s growth. Although beset with early difficulties, under Irwin Miller’s leadership the company persevered to become the leading independent diesel manufacturer in the world (2006 reported sales were $11.4 billion). In addition to being a patron of modern architecture, Irwin Miller was a philanthropist and industrialist well known for his civic activism. A lay leader in the Christian ecumenical and civil rights movements, he was the first layman to be President of the National Council of Churches and was a strong advocate for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (working with Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize the March on Washington).
– from the Indianapolis Museum of Art website
During the first century A.D., Emperor Augustus could claim that he found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. In the 20th century, J. Irwin Miller could make a similar boast of Columbus, Indiana: When he grew up there in the 1910s and ’20s, it was a small Midwestern town; by the time he passed away in 2004, he’d left it a hub of Modernist architecture.
– Ian Volner, writing in Surface Magazine, July 2017
Xenia Simons Miller (1917-2008) was born in Morgantown, Indiana, the daughter of Nellie Hosetta Wellons and Luther A. Simons
Xenia grew up in and around Columbus, graduating from Columbus High School and Indiana Business College before taking a position at Cummins Engine Company, working in the firm’s purchasing department. This is where she met her husband, whom she married in 1943.
Xenia Miller was deeply involved in the civic and cultural life of her community, her state, and the nation, with interests as varied as horticulture, music, historic preservation, education, and religion. She worked closely with the architects of her home in Columbus as it was being designed, particularly with Alexander Girard.
Xenia’s father was involved in the lumber industry as a young man, and by the late 1920s became involved in furniture manufacturing. He was founder of the Columbus Hickory Chair Company (later the Columbus Hickory Furniture Company), one of a number of rustic furniture manufacturers in Indiana during the first half of the twentieth century. Luther Simons is remembered for his ingenuity and willingness to innovate in an industry characterized by traditional products and materials. He developed Simonite to substitute for rattan, an Asian import in short supply during the Second World War. He often employed workers with disabilities as well as elderly individuals, paying them at the same scale as others.
– adapted from the Indianapolis Museum of Art website
Justin Davidson, architecture critic at New York magazine, and winner of a Pulitzer prize, provided an introduction to the book Modernist Midwest Mecca where he wrote about Mr. Miller:
“He saw social justice as a tool of enlightened capitalism and design as the mark of a gracious, economically thriving city. The civic monuments, golf courses, and well-lit schools he paid for—these were not just the fruits of do-gooder altruism, but tools with which to recruit the brightest talents to a quiet provincial town.”
- “We would like to see this community come to be not the cheapest community in America, but the very best community of its size in the country. We would like to see it become the city in which the smartest, the ablest, the best young families anywhere would like to live..”
- “Architecture is something you can see. You can’t see a spirit or a temperament or a character, though, and there’s an invisible part of this community that I’m very proud of…because, in a democracy, I think that the process is more important than the product.”
- “Business chief executive officers and their boards succumb to the pressures of the financial markets and their fears of takeovers and pour out their energies to produce quarterly earnings – at the expense of building their companies for the long term.”
- “The decline of manners, the cynical pursuit without shame or restraint of personal advantage and of money characterizes our times, not without exceptions, of course, but more than we ought to be comfortable with.”
- “Character, ability, and intelligence are not concentrated in one sex over the other, nor in persons with certain accents or in certain races or in persons holding degrees from universities over the others. When we indulge ourselves in such irrational prejudices we damage ourselves most of all, and ultimately assure ourselves of failure in competition with those more open and less biased.”
- “The calling of the humanities is to make us truly human in the best sense of the word.”
- “The most important service to others is service to those who are not like yourself.”
Select insights from
the local biography,
The Cathedral Builder
- While the family may be most known for founding Cummins Engine Company, their identity was really formed around faith. J. Irwin Miller’s grandfathers, Z. T. Sweeney and John Chapman Miller, were both ministers with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). And Z. T. had significant involvement in creating Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
- A teacher’s evaluation of Miller includes: “Irwin has something better than scholastic ability and achievement. He has a character of pure gold. I expect to hear fine things from him.”
- Miller’s youngest son Will noted that music was even more important to his father than architecture, and Bach the composer he most admired.
- His long-time friend and president of Indiana University, Herman Wells, said, “Miller was the best trustee (at Yale) of the twentieth century among some very fine ones. He was devoted to Yale for all the right reasons. More trustees wanted to keep Yale the way it used to be — when they were undergraduates. Miller felt we must always be moving forward. For Miller, this largely meant the increased enrollment of women and African Americans.
- Martin Luther King called Miller the most socially responsible businessman in the country. Anti-bigotry was hardwired in his DNA and suffused in his religiosity.
- Miller would hold up character as the prime criterion for hiring and promoting people, outstripping experience and knowledge.
- Few did as much for Yale in the twentieth century as Miller. But there is nothing to commemorate his contribution — no plaque on a building, no statue on a mall, no name on a professorship — exactly the way Miller wanted.
- Miller brought an intangible unity to the company, from top to bottom, that would carry it through decades to come. Practicing Christian principles, Miller evidently worked hard at relating to Cummins’ employees. Conrad Bowling, president of the Diesel Workers Union, used the occasion of Cummins’ 1997 annual shareholders’ meeting to make Miller an honorary lifetime member, saying, “This is perhaps unprecedented in the world of labor relations, but you are unprecedented in the world of business leadership…You were at the top of the company with lots of strategic world issues vying for your attention, yet you always had time for those of us on the shop floor dealing with the issues of today’s production. We could talk to you and we knew you would listen. You came to our gatherings, and we know that you cared.”