Historic Connections: The Burkett Miller Influence

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Chattanooga’s reputation for philanthropy is widely known, yet one name among those familiar philanthropists is often overlooked. That name is Burkett Miller, a 1914 graduate of the University of Virginia Law School and a prominent Tennessean. He was the great nephew of Miller & Martin law firm founding partner Col. T.M. Burkett and he practiced law in Chattanooga from 1914 until his death. He maintained the same office on the 10th floor of the Volunteer Building for over 50 years. The building was erected in 1917, and according to records, he worked and remained active until falling ill prior to his death in January of 1977.

A quiet man who found partisan politics unsettling, Miller made a number of contributions that have been catalysts for a broad range of civic improvements in Chattanooga and expanded the quality of education both at the public level and at several universities in the South. One of the most significant contributions, made near the end of his life, was the founding of the Miller Center, which celebrates 40 years as a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia (UVA). The $76-million endowment underwrites programs specializing in presidential scholarship, public policy and political history.

Miller envisioned a place where leaders could come together to reach consensus for developing solutions to problems. The Center’s work takes a nonpartisan approach to a deep examination of United States presidents and their unique contributions. The Center has released a documentary project called First Year, a study of transitions of power from one presidential administration to another. Miller Center Director Bill Antholis, formerly director of the Brookings Institute says, the First Year project seeks to provide an intellectual roadmap grounded in history, to guide the next president in his or her first year.

“We know from conversations with policymakers that the time they have to devote to historical reflection and contemporary analysis is limited, yet they yearn for some historical lessons that can inspire their decisions,” says Antholis. “Our project will fill that gap in the public discourse by examining past presidential first years, assessing the policy opportunities and threats facing our next president, and offering historical analysis and non-partisan, forward-looking recommendations to help guide those choices.”

Antholis was in Chattanooga recently for a preview of First Year and for a panel discussion called Building a Nation of Makers. This recent report included six ideas to accelerate the innovative capacity of American manufacturing. Sponsored by New York philanthropist Howard Milstein, it included Dixie Group’s CEO Dan Frierson.

The Miller Center makes its work available to the public in several ways, including a website that receives 12- to 13-million page views a year; in-person events, including tapings of American Forum, the Miller Center’s weekly public affairs program that airs on PBS stations; printed and e-communications; and a monthly e-newsletter that is sent to people across the country. Its media reach includes national media outlets such as The New York Times, Washington Post and Politico. As for social media platforms, its work is posted daily on Facebook and Twitter.

The Miller Center makes its work available to the public in several ways, including a website that receives 12- to 13-million page views a year; in-person events, including tapings of American Forum, the Miller Center’s weekly public affairs program that airs on PBS stations; printed and e-communications; and a monthly e-newsletter that is sent to people across the country. Its media reach includes national media outlets such as The New York Times, Washington Post and Politico. As for social media platforms, its work is posted daily on Facebook and Twitter.

The Miller Center's Bill Antholis introduces "First Year."

The Miller Center’s Bill Antholis introduces “First Year.”

Miller & Martin attorney, Allen McCallie, believes the public is unaware of other significant philanthropic contributions Miller made through the Tonya Foundation, named for his yacht and established in the late 1930s.

“When I started my clerkship here in 1978, he was already gone,” says McCallie, who was later made a trustee along with law firm partners Jim Hitching, Jim Waterhouse and banker Maurice Martin. Miller’s nephew Jimmy Hedges and Whitney Durand, a McCallie graduate, Moorhead Scholar and former partner were also trustees.

What more is there to know? Maybe, that the work of the Tonya Foundation, also created by Miller, is what spurred the transformation of Chattanooga’s blighted urban landscape beginning in the 1980s. One of the first transformative projects was the creation of Miller Park, and later, Miller Plaza. River City Company’s Kim White sees it as a phenomenal gift.

“If you think about what our city was like 40 years ago, Burkett Miller’s investment highlighted the importance of public space in our city,” says White. Now with improvements ahead for the city-owned park, she adds, “It has good bones to build on.”

“Unlike the bigger foundations, Tonya was smaller when it started, maybe $7-$11 million,” says McCallie. “Yet, another interesting fact that be the time Tonya finished grant making 30 years later, the Foundation had awarded over $40 million in grants due to stock market appreciation. It was a focused type of philanthropy that was uncommon.” Specifically, Miller charged the trustees with the responsibility to do “not a large number of small things, but a small number of large things.” These were the things that would not have otherwise happened. Tonya Foundation was also instrumental in founding the Miller Eye Center in honor of his wife; the development of Coolidge Park, the Tennessee River Park, and the Riverwalk; and for a number of educational programs at several universities that have served as models for other institutions.

MIller & Martin's Jim Haley, Senator Bob Corker, UVA's Bernie Carlson, Georgia Tech's Jennifer Clark, Dixie Group CEO Dan Frierson and blank participated in the discussions.

MIller & Martin’s Jim Haley, Senator Bob Corker, UVA’s Bernie Carlson, Georgia Tech’s Jennifer Clark, Dixie Group CEO Dan Frierson and blank participated in the discussions.

The action of spreading the virtues of entrepreneurship were carried out at three southern institutions. At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, The Burkett Miller Distinguished Lecture Series is a forum for scientific inquiry bringing internationally recognized scholars, practitioners and thinkers to the UTC Campus to speak on topics critical to an understanding of the Market Economy. The series is organized and supported by the Probasco Chair to benefit students, faculty, business persons and the community at large by providing opportunities to critically review controversial ideas.

Burkett and the Tonya Foundation endowed the Frank Wilson Chair of Economics at the University of the South, Sewanee and student internships at The School of Business and Public Affairs. This year alone there were 28 Public Affairs internships and 12 business internships in countries like Armenia, Honduras, Uganda and France and among an assortment of NGOs as well as the U.S. State Department. The value of each is from $900 to $2,800.

Miller & Martin Attorney Ned Boehm is on Sewanee committee that meets twice a year to approve the internships. The University requires three members from Chattanooga and three from Sewanee to serve. The other Chattanooga members are Hugh Sharber and Scott Probasco. Boehm worked for Miller for a few years before his death.“I called him Mr. Miller,” says Boehm. “He had seen foundations go astray from the original intent of the founder. He was very particular about how the process at Sewanee was to be handled. The successful growth of these programs over the last 40 years proves he knew exactly what he was doing.”

Miller’s wealth came from a heavy investment in downtown real estate and from the stock market. He rode out the Great Depression and at one time was said to be the largest individual shareholder of Bristol Myers stock. He owned the downtown Sears store, and had included in the lease that he get a percentage of sales from all the area stores, which proved quite valuable decades later when Sears opened its store at Northgate Mall. “This conservative man, who would have been very un-PC by today’s standards, believed in free market capitalism and hard work,” says McCallie. “He and the Foundation that came after him encouraged economic development in many important ways.”

The Miller & Martin law firm itself will celebrate 150 years of law practice in 2017. And though the Tonya Foundation completed its grant money in the early 2000s as Miller had instructed, it’s good to know that many of the public spaces Chattanoogan’s enjoy today would not be a part of the city’s fabric had it not been for a faintly remembered man, whose name lives on in the strength of the Miller Center, Miller Park and Miller & Martin PLLC.

Learn more at millercenter.org and www.millermartin.com

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Debbie is the retired Editor of Chattanooga Magazine, and ongoing contributor.

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