When I moved with my wife and two little girls to Lawrence less than a month ago, one of our big reasons for coming was the chance to spend time with my uncle, Douglas Luther Miller. But we saw him too briefly, and just twice, before he passed away last Thursday without warning. But, as the poet W.H. Auden wrote:
'In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
I had hoped that my daughters, who are today very young, could grow up knowing their Great Uncle well, hearing his stories and being exposed to his incomparable sense of humor.
Douglas' sister — my mother, Nancy — once said that you could write Douglas an impassioned ten-page letter. And he'd send you back a postcard with one line written on it. And it would be written in Russian.
But my wish was for my kids to be able to view history, politics and everyday life here in Lawrence from his unique perspective.
Douglas was the last surviving member of his generation in our family. Both his older brother Allen and my mother died too young before him. But Douglas was also a link to an important set of values.
Douglas grew up in Texas, Dodge City, and Topeka in the 1950s and 1960s. He was smart and stubborn and fond of science, history, music, politics, books and, yes, firearms. In fact, as a boy, he owned a beloved military surplus bazooka with which he would entertain, or terrorize, family and friends. One time in his youth, Douglas wanted to bring a surplus rifle back from a family trip to Mexico and when U.S. customs agents frowned on the importation of a used Mexican gun, he threw such a fierce fit that the border guards decided that it was OK to ignore all applicable laws and let the kid bring the rifle into Texas.
This fondness for guns is not to say Douglas ever looked for a fight, at least not one that involved violence of any kind. When he was drafted by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Douglas, who was already too skinny at 135-pounds, went on an all-banana crash diet, and lost 15 or 20 more pounds in anticipation of his Army physical evaluation.
By the time Army doctors got an eyeful of their new recruit, Douglas resembled Twiggy. He at best could have scared the Vietcong into cleaning their plates at mealtimes.
So he was rejected from service and did not have to do battle in the Vietnam War. Or, I should say, he didn't fight Vietnam in Vietnam, because he did fight the war here at home, in Lawrence, where he moved in the late 1960s to attend KU.
In the late '60's, Douglas hung around the Hippie Haven of Mount Oread, resisting war in Southeast Asia though protest, politics, pot and devotion to social justice. He saw the National Guard come crashing though hippie barricades on Tennessee St, like some scene from the French Revolution. He inhaled the government-issue tear gas and did sit-ins and was an all around pain in the ass for the forces of American style authority and conformity. Some here in this room remember him from the celebrated White House on Oread Avenue, or from the Gaslight Tavern there or the Abington Book Shop.
Truly, Douglas was Lawrence to the core. While he saw much of the world in his lifetime, he preferred this city. Today Lawrence bids farewell to one of its original hippie denizens, to a character with long hair and a jean jacket with an opinion on everything. The River City has lost a concerned citizen and a good neighbor. A taxpayer, a family man. And, of course, an agent provocateur.
Douglas loved the University of Kansas, and may be competitive for the all time high score in years spent as an undergraduate. He also worked there for many more years in the Computer Center, helping people with his great computer programming talents. Indeed, the first computer I ever saw was in Douglas's living room. He started several computer companies, in fact, to develop products and services he invented. He saw computers as tools to solve the problems of this world. For Douglas, computers were useful to comb data for answers, to propagate information and to connect people.
In "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," the late Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies — 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.' "
My uncle Douglas didn't have a hundred years although he deserved them. But he most certainly knew Vonnegut's rule — "God damn it, you've got to be kind" — and lived it.
I want to say thank you Douglas for a few kindnesses he showed me, like giving me my very first guitar when I was an eleven-year-old kid. It was a nylon stringed acoustic "Monarch" brand guitar. And I have played ever since. Also, thank you Douglas for helping to raise me and look after me when my mother was going through hard times. Although I was to some extent a very exasperating adolescent, you were a great help to both my mother and to me. Douglas, thank you too for being there and being so kind when my mother passed away during Christmas 2003. You were a great friend through that. Douglas, I'll miss you terribly.
Indeed, my Uncle Douglas was one of the kindest souls I have known in this life. Not only did he treat people well and feel genuine empathy for them, but also he spent much of his life actively trying to help others.
See, the working years my uncle unmistakably relished above all others was his considerable time as a Lawrence fireman in the '80's. And what other job more involves putting others first than that of a fireman, willing to trade his life to save yours? That is how I remember Douglas best, too, with his mustache like a brush and his wiry physique.
Today, we say goodbye to a man who saved our kitties from peril; who rushed to explosive trains full of carcinogens lying derailed inside our city limits; who with axe chopped apart our walls to get to us; who climbed our rafters and breathed our smoke and dove though flames and rushed us to hospitals and waiting helicopters.
Douglas's lifelong commitment to kindness prompted him to join the Lawrence Coalition for Peace and Justice following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He was outraged by the current regime in Washington and their foreign policy of arrogance plus bombs. Many of you in this room knew him best from countless Saturday afternoons spent in front of the County Courthouse, where, holding his ever-present travel mug full of coffee, Douglas held his yellow plastic sign emblazoned with the law-and-order set up slogan "STOP CRIME" which he'd flip over to reveal the punch line: "IMPEACH BUSH."
Likewise, Douglas felt concern for the environment and showed kindness towards animals. His daughter Amy says he had a love-hate relationship with his cats, but the fact that he had so many over the years showed that his love for his cats was the emotion that ruled. It says a lot that Douglas didn't kill spiders that found their way into his house. He transported them in jars to new lives in the great outdoors. His love of nature was especially evident in his passion for sky watching with his telescope and photography of flowers.
Douglas' kindness, his sensitivity to injustice among people and his love for nature led him to want to contribute to a more equitable and sustainable world. Along these lines, Douglas had recently, in the midst of his so-called "retirement," swept the rest of us up with his enthusiasm for a windmill. It had become the imperative project of his life.
My Uncle was on fire with excitement for his new invention – a highly efficient and easy-to-deploy wind turbine he had dubbed the Wind Dragon. Many in this room have heard about this device that could have sprung only from the imagination of a practiced, practical dreamer. Armed with the motto "Power to the People" and a vision of providing people with cheap, fossil-free, renewable energy, Douglas over the past year had transformed his living room on Almira St. into an inventor's workshop complete with table saw, plans, notes, cardboard models, and a hand built electrical generator.
To underscore the infuriating cosmic prank at work, I should mention that Douglas had plans to finish the first working model of the Wind Dragon the day he passed away. In his email to me, last Wednesday, Douglas wrote, " I just got the frame of my experiment done, and now all that is left is to build the turbine blades, cover the structure, test it, and patent it."
He was that close. Now it is left to his daughter Amy to see Douglas' Wind Dragon through to the finish. I know she can.
For beyond his wind turbine or his computer work or photography or any other projects Douglas perused with such focus, Amy, you are the great monument to your father's life. He loved you profoundly. He was so proud of your achievements in pursuing your doctoral degree at the University of Toronto, and you should know that even though your father can't be here in the flesh to root for you, he is with you in everything you do anyway. You embody him, his aspirations and ideals, and you'll carry him with you always as you progress in your academic career and your family life. He wanted you to soar through this world like a bird.
Pat, as you told me on the day he passed away, Douglas was a wonderful man and the love of your life. I'm so sorry for your loss. Please know that you and Douglas succeeded in raising a wonderful daughter who is really remarkably well adjusted for a member of our side of family. You and Douglas made each other happy for many years. He would want unceasing happiness for you and want for you to follow through on all your dreams with grace. No, Douglas will not be there to transport spiders from the house now, and return them safely to their leafy natural habitats, but you can always call me to do the job. I wouldn't kill them either. My Uncle Douglas taught me better than that.