Professor Dean Miller, Contrarian

I think I learned more about being a capable contrarian from Dean Miller than just about anyone. Examples abound, of course, but few live up to it. Dean loved John Masters’ novels and Nevil Shute. He was also a nevil in that Urban Dictionary kinda’ way. Guys like this are just an anachronism nowadays. And Dean was no bad guy, not sexist or misogynist and certainly nothing like what we expect today but, you know, in a good way.  I liked him aplenty.  He hated evil and that’s good enough for me.  So here are a few more words about Dean all wrapped up in other ideas.  No one quite writes like John Masters anymore, do they?

When I arrived at the UR some 33 years ago, Religion & Classics was a new department made of old bits. We are still the only Religion Department in the country that shares its professional space with the Classicists. I am strangely proud of that since as a Sanskritist and a student of Tamil, I regard myself a classicist. My inept forays into Greek (and less so Latin) make me a very faux classicist by any professional standard. I’m not sure anymore what my profession is short of just plain college professor. Hitchens could have left his job to me in his will but it didn’t work out that way. I fukcing hate “guru” and despite my best efforts get called that—more like accused—more often than I can tell you. It’s a hazard of studying India? Or loving India? Or learning something? WTF knows. Anyways, none of this is about that story. This story is about a guy I met when I first got here. His name was Dean Miller.

That’s a confusing name for a professional academic because you are either mistaken for a dean or you’d be Dean Dean Miller, and both of those things are truly lamentable. I can think of no job inside the university that I would like less than dean of anything. Really? Meetings? Policies? You don’t get to read books all day anymore? I get that you don’t grade papers and don’t have to indulge the little villains, but _dean_? Man, that would suck. Well, this Dean did not suck and he was never a dean because one of the things I liked best about him was that he felt that way about being a dean. He liked to teach but apparently wasn’t very popular. He loved the intellectual life and took his profession more seriously than I do. I learned not to love being an academic at least in part by watching Dean struggle with the disparity. Having an intellectual life is a prerequisite but not synonymous with being an academic. Academics is just a job, but Dean was better than that and saw it in more dignified, more lofty terms. He drank a lot too, which is how you survive.

Dean was a Korean war vet, came out of it all to get his degree in History and that was the department down the hall. He was always just a few offices away. His thing was Proto-Indo-European cultures, heroes, and Dean was a Dumezilian. Now that may not mean much unless you know what that means. Dumezil was a French scholar who read a lot, knew a lot, and made bold, indefensible statements using details no one else could master. Being a Dumezilian involves a LOT of difficult languages, a lot of myth and ritual, a lot of structural thinking and imagination, so it’s got it all if you are a humanist. Dean was always more at home in the study of religion. We study everything. Much of what the Dumezilians say is strangely true and even less of it is provable. It was long out of fashion before I learned it and Dean Miller was still doing it, even to the last. And he was a character. He’d wander into your office, shoot the breeze, talk about scotch and wear a kilt to important events. He had married well and never worried about money but he wasn’t about to quit his job in Rochester to return to Chicago—a far better, more interesting place, but compared to Rochester, you’d have be stuck in Scranton or Joplin or somethin’. Anyways, he hung in there not because he needed the job but because he had things to say and mostly because he liked the intellectual life. That is something I really loved about him maybe because that’s about the only thing I really love about my job too.

Dean had a thick frock of white hair, wore corduroy blazers, and still went to history conferences hating everything about how things had gone. He published article after article about IE ritual and heroes and other dashing fellows, and I’m sure he taught me that when you write and what you study is really just yourself and who you want to be. He finally retired and History hired far less colorful and, to my mind, less interesting people. He wrote me a few times, I wrote back. He died at 87 last week. That’s a good run. He would have preferred to keep living. Professor Dean Miller. I’d bet there aren’t three people left at the UR who remember him. That’s what a lifetime of work and a career buys ya’.

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