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George Miller, former Tucson mayor, dies at 92

One of the longest serving public officials in Tucson's history died Christmas morning. George Miller, who was mayor for most of the 1990s, was 92.

Shot in the leg during World War II, the Marine veteran remained ever-ready to take a stand for his beliefs, whether it was refusing to "name names" during the height of McCarthyism or suing his fellow Council members during political disputes.

Miller, a Democrat, died just after midnight at a local nursing home.

First elected as a city councilman in 1977, Miller ran for mayor in 1991. He won, and headed the city until declining to seek reelection in 1999.

Miller was a Marine during World War II, earning a Purple Heart when he was wounded on Saipan in June 1944. Miller took a .31-calbier Japanese bullet to the leg, cracking a bone in his right thigh on the second day of the battle. About 1,000 Americans were killed on the central Pacific island; Miller was one of about 3,000 wounded.

After the war, Miller returned to Tucson, earning bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Arizona, and became a social studies teacher at Amphitheater High School in 1948.

He was fired by the district in 1950, after pushing for better pay. Miller's involvement in the left-wing Progressive Party probably also played into his dismissal.

In 1954, he refused to testify when questioned before the House Un-American Activities subcommittee, part of the anti-communist witch hunt spearheaded by U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy.

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Miller had returned to the Detroit area, where he was born, to teach. While he was by no stretch a communist, he stood on his 5th Amendment right to not testify when questioned about his political activities.

"At the time you were holding your position as a teacher in the state of Michigan, were you affiliated in any way with the Communist Party?," he was asked.

"Did you . . . at the time you were teaching in Tucson, attempt to indoctrinate your pupils with the Marxist-Communist doctrine and theory?"

"I refuse to answer on the basis of the First and Fifth Amendment and any other amendments or provisions of the Constitution which afford me protection," Miller replied to the repeated questions.

The refusal to "name names" cost Miller his career, and he moved back to Tucson.

Unable to return to teaching, he joined the construction industry, starting G. and M. Painting Contractors. He ran that business for three decades.

From the moment he entered political life, Miller was no stranger to controversy. Early in his first term, he sued his fellow Council members over the purchase of the Old Pueblo Transit Company to fold it into the Sun Tran system. He also filed suit over increasing the size of the City Court building after voters shot down funding for the project.

Miller was long a proponent of grade-separated "bantam" road interchanges, but projects such as the one proposed for the intersection of Grant Road and Campbell Avenue met with widespread opposition. Miller also supported the city's expansion, particularly annexation of areas in the Foothills and Northwest Side.

What perhaps drew the most criticism during his tenure as mayor was greeting President Bill Clinton in 1999 while still wearing denim duds following the Rodeo Parade earlier in the day — a fitting move for a mayor who continued to drive his pickup while in office.

After retiring from politics, Miller returned to teaching, as a political science professor at Pima Community College.

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The Miller-Golf Links branch of the Pima County Public Library, 9640 E. Golf Links Rd., is named after the former mayor.

Miller was born in Detroit on Oct. 24, 1922, and moved to Tucson in 1939 for his health after bouts with pneumonia. He was the youngest of four children, the son of Russian Jews who had immigrated to the United States just after the turn of the century.

Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson applauded Miller's community involvement Thursday.

Mentioning his HUAC appearance, the Democrat praised Miller's refusal "to answer its witch-hunt questions about his beliefs in human decency and dignity, beliefs that served him his entire life but especially during his service on the City Council."

Miller "loved Tucson and Pima County and fought fiercely to protect its culture, history and environment," Bronson said in a written statement. "When Pima County bought the historic A-7 Ranch (formerly Bellota Ranch) as part of the Sonora Desert Conservation Plan, at the dedication, though George was in his mid-80s and had trouble walking, he still hiked to the top of the mountain so he could look proudly on what the people had preserved."

Current Mayor Jonathan Rothschild posted on Facebook Thursday afternoon that he was "sad to learn" of his predecessor's passing.

"George was devoted to Tucson ... He will be missed," Rothschild wrote.

Bruce Wheeler, a Democratic state representative who was a bitter political foe of Miller's — Wheeler primaried Miller for mayor in 1995 while sitting on the Council — posted Thursday that he was a "a good and beloved man."

Current members of the Council also expressed their sense of loss.

"I had the privilege of consulting with George on issues of concern. His leadership and passion for our community will be missed," said Councilman Richard Fimbres.

"It is hard to sum up what he meant to me and my family in a quick Facebook post, but I learned a lot from him. Thank you for your service and friendship, George," said Councilman Paul Cunningham.

Miller is survived by his wife Roslyn and their eight children, 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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Memorial service

A public memorial service for George Miller will be held at 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 11 at the Jewish Community Center, 3800 E. River Rd.