Nyle Miller's Kansas
by Burton J. Williams
Winter, 1977 (Vol. 43, No. 4), pages 470-480;
Transcribed by Gary Fleming; composed in HTML by Name withheld upon request;
digitized with permission of the Kansas State Historical Society.
NOTE: The numbers in brackets refer to endnotes for this text.
Nyle Miller retired at the end of 1976 after serving as managing editor of the Kansas Historical Quarterly and secretary-executive director of the Kansas State Historical Society for many years. In recognition of this service, a seminar on Kansas history was held in Topeka, November 12, 1976. Among the papers presented was the following essay which we print here as a tribute to Nyle, who believes that history should be entertaining as well as informative. -- THE EDITORS
THE TITLE of this paper would probably be more appropriate if I called it "Nyle Miller in the Mirror." For indeed the basis for the remarks which are to follow have been drawn almost exclusively from the columns of the Historical Society Mirror, especially the feature styled "The Secretary's Desk." Now many of you have seen this very desk, albeit not without difficulty because of the conglomerate collection of various and sundry historical materials piled high as the lofty ceiling of Nyle's unpretentious office will permit. Somewhere from the bottomless bowels of this historical heap the previously cited column emerges like a phoenix from the ashes. But what Nyle did not realize was the very present fact that his column would be the grist for the presentation which is now proffered. However, before proceeding I do not mean to suggest that the Mirror embraces all that I have styled as Nyle Miller's Kansas. Indeed Nyle was serving as secretary some four years prior to the issuance of Vol. 1, No. 1 of the Mirror and my reliance on some 21 years of the Mirror is not intended to suggest that no record exists for those first four years of Nyle's service as secretary of the Society. Indeed that is not the case. Numerous newspaper articles relate not only his activities in those early years as secretary, but they also recite the enviable record of his service in the newspaper section of the Society's holdings.  Moreover there is even an intimate glimpse of Nyle in one newspaper account concerning his fascination with bird watching. But there was one rather large bird Nyle and his good wife Esther failed to see, so the story goes, for a stork settled on their very doorstep bringing them Janis Esther Miller on January 5, 1953. The story concluded with the cryptic comment that " Nyle... thought the stork extinct and was fooled."  Although the newspapers afford us with considerable coverage of our secretary's service to the Society I believe Nyle's own words as recorded in the Mirror afford us an even better source of information. The idea for a newsletter such as the Mirror, so the Mirror claims, was the brainchild of Angelo Scott, Iola publisher and the Society's president in 1954.  In the first issue, published January, 1955, Nyle promised not to bore prospective readers... with anything that resembled a boring statistic" and Nyle stuck by his word.  In the second issue of the Mirror Nyle issued an appeal that has gone down in history, with these words: "How about that old, hard sofa you've been wondering what to do with."  Yes, my fellow Jayhawkers, our secretary was searching for a couch, among assorted other "bric-a-brac", as he put it, to begin furnishing period rooms in the museum quarters. And for the next several years our secretary sounded the trumpet for tables, chairs, lamps, rugs, curtains, drapes, a dental chair and drill, an anvil, hub-caps, a beaded bridge lamp, an old radio, a cast iron cook stove, preferably a large four or six holer (that's the first time I have seen that term applied to a stove), corner "what-nots" and on and on it goes. In November, 1956, the trumpet sounded yet another time -again for a couch! Although the Victorian era parlor was ready to receive visitors in July, 1960, the couch which had been found to grace this vintage room was somehow unsatisfactory. Once more the clarion call went forth to replace the "sofa" in this room with one from the Louis XV or Louis XVI period. Now whether or not the appropriate sofa or couch was ever found remains a matter of conjecture insofar as the historical record of the Mirror is concerned.
Now I would not for a moment have this august body presume from these remarks that the world of Nyle Miller was confined to couch hunting. Not so, for long before the current woman's rights movement had begun our secretary cleared space on the fourth floor of the Memorial building for them, in 1961 to be exact, i.e. this space was to be devoted to the role of women in Kansas history and indeed it was so.  Ten exhibits were devoted to subjects of interest to women, in that day, such as china, glassware, silver, hats, shoes, hobbies, toys, fans, and accessories.  (I wonder what the women of this bicentennial year would prefer by way of exhibits?)
Apart from Nyle's tenacious and ultimately triumphant effort in bringing forth really first-rate period rooms and timely exhibits, he waged a long, arduous struggle with the legislature vis à vis sufficient appropriations to adequately preserve and promulgate the Kansas story. One of the highlights of these struggles occurred in 1960. In the March edition of that year the Mirror story as reported by our secretary's column began somewhat nonsesequiterially by stating the following: "There's an old saw 'When It Rains, It Pours!'" In spite of this rather shaky start our secretary got quickly to the point; the state legislature had come through with appropriations (without a negative vote it was noted) making possible the remodeling of the auditorium and adjacent areas of the Memorial building. Included were provisions for air conditioning for the new area as well as for old offices, reading rooms, and museum display sections. Our secretary pointed out that all phases of this project were to be completed by January, 1961. This allowed for a nine-month term of pregnancy for this multiple offspring.
Burton J. Williams, Ellensburg, Wash. delivering "Nyle Miller's Kansas,"
at Nyle Miller Day in Topeka, November 12, 1976.
The January, 1961, issue of the Mirror announced the outcome with the heading, "Remodeling of Memorial Building Almost Finished." A full description of the major improvements followed with the hope expressed that all would be ready for Kansas Day on January 29. And it was so. I am sure that Nyle would join me in saying that in many respects the legislature which provided the appropriation for these major improvements was one of the more enlightened to serve the state in recent years. Certainly far more so than the legislature described by Nyle in the May, 1976, issue of the Mirror. Our secretary hints that he is suspicious of the ancestry of this body by a sprinkling of metaphors appropriate to his disappointment, i.e. we knew there were "... a few hostiles who had other priorities stuffed in their quivers... (but we found ourselves convincingly zapped off at the main pass by some well-armed braves, and the wreckage of our Second Century dreams littered the countryside for miles around...." I'll bet you that secretly Nyle shared Will Rogers's sentiment when he described congress (here we substitute the Kansas legislature) as "that grand old benevolent society for the helpless." But lest you think our secretary was picking on the 1976 legislature I would remind you that other legislatures felt the barb of his pen. He described the budget session of the 1962 legislature as "... leaving us with that wrung out feeling."  After being the "wringee" our secretary decided to become a "wringor" when he told the Society's membership that effective July 1, 1963, membership dues were going up from three to five dollars.  Along about this time our secretary accompanied his "wringor" announcement with a polite flourishing of his hat. As a matter of historical record there was a period here in the early 1960's when Nyle was doffing all kinds of hats at the virtual drop of a hat. In November of 1962 our secretary "gladly doff[ed] our new celebrated Texas-style fedora... ." In January, 1963, he was "... ready to doff his Texas Stetson . . ." and in July, 1964, he stated, "It's been a long time since I've worn my straw, but I proudly put it on today to be able to doff it... ."  In addition there was a continuing dread that one day he would be required to remove his hat out of a joint sense of embarrassment and final tribute. In March, 1956, he recited several needs of the Society which became "... victims of the (legislative) pruning shears . . ." among which was the need to replace the old glass runways in the stacks with flooring.  In January, 1957, he reiterated his concern for this matter by pointing out that "... glass becomes brittle with age and ever since a staff member fell through the floor several years ago we have continued the item in the budget, as a matter of duty and responsibility."  Now just who this staff member was has remained a mystery so far as I am concerned, however, if it had been the governor I feel sure those glass floors would have been replaced pronto. As it turned out it took another 11 years before this was finally accomplished in 1968.
Along with these assorted doffings of the hat Nyle gave special thanks to the 1965 legislature and to Governor Avery for "... the friendly and sympathetic treatment accorded the Society in the recent legislative session."  As a postscript, honesty compels me to point out that Governor Avery was defeated in his bid for reelection. May this serve as notice to Nyle's successor that he be careful about giving thanks to politicians who have supported his programs. Be advised that Providence alone is to receive thanks which proved to be the case following the sideswipe the Memorial building received on June 8, 1966. This is the date that the devastating tornado struck Topeka, but fortunately for our Society the damage done to the Memorial building was modest when compared to other parts of the city, and for this thanks to Providence was sincerely proffered. And true to his commitment to Kansas our secretary boldly challenged the impressions some held that Kansas was the tornado alley as described in the Wizard of Oz. Nyle had the patriotic audacity to state, "... I have lived in Kansas two score and several years and not to my knowledge have I seen a tornado funnel."  I might discreetly point out at this juncture that it's extremely difficult to see one of these funnels if you crawl under the furniture and shut your eyes. Having survived the tornado and a few more legislatures the January, 1970, issue of the Mirror was increased from four to six pages with a view to giving increasing coverage to local historical activities throughout the state. As for the Society itself another and more significant change was contemplated in 1970; the Kansas Commission on Executive Reorganization was considering a proposal to make the KSHS a subdivision of a larger state agency or department. Nyle boldly resisted this shove towards a bureaucratic structure by properly pointing out that the KSHS "... should remain free from the ebb and flow of political currents, as it impartially gathers the materials of history from all."  This plea on behalf of the need for continuing the independence of the Society was reiterated in subsequent issues of the Mirror and it is the hope of the reader of this paper that this plea will not be ignored.
Coupled with concern for independency of operation our secretary simultaneously began an appeal for more space for the Society's collections.  Space continued in diminishing supply and as for reorganization about all that has happened to date was simply a title change for our secretary, from secretary to executive director.  To this name change Nyle invited one and all to "Go ahead and call me whatever has been your custom."  (Propriety constrains me, here in this public place, from calling Nyle what I have customarily called him over the years.) But on a more serious note and of immeasurable historical significance was Nyle's very special announcement in January, 1972, that Louise Barry's series of articles entitled "Kansas Before 1854" was to be published in book form, complete with index under the title The Beginning of the West: Annals of the Kansas Gateway to the American West, 1540-1854. Nyle accurately predicted that this book was "... destined to become a basic work on the early American West . . .," and indeed it has.  In May of 1972, our secretary announced that the legislature had provided the Society with an "... austere but livable budget."  And with an almost audible sigh of relief reported that "... state government reorganization was not generally attempted at this session."  But perhaps of even greater significance was the announcement that the governor had approved $10,000 to be used towards a careful study of the space needs of the Society with a provision for a land option as deemed necessary. Nyle suggested the land most suitable for such an option was a parcel just west of Topeka off I-70 and near the I-470 bypass.  Despite this promising start delays set in followed by frustration. For no amount of persuasion seemed to be able to move this project off dead center. In November, 1972, budget hearings with the governor, a site was suggested by the Capital Plaza architect across 10th street just south of this present structure.  But high land costs plus limited parking space were problems of significant proportions with respect to this site. In the meantime space in the Memorial building was desperately needed. Success seemed just around the corner though when Senate Bill 571 was passed by the legislature which provided for the acquisition of a desirable 81-acre site just west of Topeka on I-70 as had been suggested by our secretary.  In literally the next breath after this announcement Nyle urged Kansans to begin preparations for the 200th birthday of our nation with this admonishment, "A bicentennialling we must go!" 
Quick on the heels of these significant developments a special meeting of the Society's board of directors was scheduled to consider an amendment to its charter and the adoption of new bylaws for the Society. Such action was necessary because the original charter granted a life to the Society of 99 years which was to expire in 1974.  As expected and needed the Society's charter was amended giving it perpetual existence and new bylaws were adopted. The immediate impact on the Society's membership was to make dues payable on a fiscal year basis.  (Isn't progress wonderful?) In the meantime the fruits of an apparent recent victory began to sour. The property purchased adjacent to I-70 which seemed so obviously to indicate that here was where the new museum was to be built suddenly became unsettled and indeed unsettling for Nyle. The governor decided the matter needed further thought and indeed the whole project seems to have received the "furtheringest" thinking possible.  As if these problems were not sufficient, our brave secretary found himself in a severe cross-fire concerning the origins of Kansas' own song, "Home on the Range."  By way of cryptic summary everyone but CBS seems to know the true authorship of the song. Meanwhile, back on the legislative ranch, the legislature concluded its 1974 sessions with no monies appropriated for a new building to house the Society's growing museum collections.  Coupled with this disappointment, those of us who read our Mirrors learned of the brave passing of that historical chronicler of chroniclers, Josephine Louise Barry, on February 27, 1974. Nyle Miller lamented her passing in poignant prose, "Nearly always we find ourselves wishing there could be time on each occasion for one to speak and write kindly on behalf of the deceased. Yet often one is so pressed by the constant obligations due the living that these voyageurs into the beyond can be long gone before he has time to give thought to the parting."  How true and yet the incalculable contribution of this Society under the dedicated directorship of Nyle Miller is a living monument to those who have passed this way before us.
But time marches on and all too often we look in vain for signs of progress in its passing. I believe Nyle was looking vainly for progress when he pointed out that the offices and reading rooms of the Society would be closed Saturday mornings and would be open only on a straight eight to five schedule Monday through Friday. This antiprogressive new practice was the result of the new federal 40-hour-a-week law in concert with insufficient operational monies received by the Society. And beyond this Nyle warned "... just around the corner the unions are marshaling their forces to move in for concentrated unionization."  But in spite of the growing burdens of bureaucracy the Society prepared to celebrate its centennial with the beginning of 1975. The centennial announcement of our secretary contained a mixture of optimism and apprehension. "The Success of Our Past -- Will It Be Prologue to Our Future?"  Who can answer that question with certainty? If anyone can we can, as members and friends of this, our beloved Kansas State Historical Society. I believe we can make a difference. I believe its destiny is very largely in our hands and certainly its course for this past quarter of a century has been in good hands (like All-State if you please) in the person of Nyle Miller.
From January, 1975, to the present Nyle courageously implored all who would hear him, which did not include a sufficiently large audience in the legislature, that the Society needed more space and the autonomy to continue to serve Kansas and Kansans as it had so enviably done for more than a century. These issues are still hanging in the balance and I am sure that there were times of deep and dark discouragement for Nyle. But when frustration and disappointment may well have bordered on despair the Native Sons and Daughters of this state bestowed their highest honor upon Nyle by naming him Kansan of the Year in this the nation's bicentennial year. Indeed this was and is now a most appropriate climax to his long years of faithful service to all of us. Six months following this highest honor the Mirror carried the story that Nyle Miller would retire on December 31, 1976.  Thus Nyle Miler's Kansas, 1951-1976, as the secretary-executive director of the Kansas State Historical Society, is about to come to a close. What I have attempted to do in the time allotted to me is to journey with Nyle over the years he has served as director of our Society. Truly there is far more to Nyle Miller's Kansas than what I have sketchily suggested here. Perhaps his Kansas can best be summed up in his own words: "One of the delights of this office is to note the many fine people in Kansas and elsewhere who go out of their way to aid this Society in its work."  And "this country will have a better chance to survive if the richness of our heritage can be instilled in the hearts of our citizens." 
The Miller family being greeted by Theo. A. Sanborn, left, at Nyle Miller Day.
Next to Nyle and Esther, right, are daughters Virginia Correa and Janis Paseka
and Janis's husband Donald. Nyle and Esther also have a son, David.