Paul Miller, My Protector

The Charleston Gazette today wrote of the death of Paul Miller. He was president of West Virginia University when I started as WVU foreign student adviser in January of 1964. He was my protector.

In 1967, West Virginia University was to award West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd an honorary doctorate. Members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and I felt that the former Ku Klux Klan organizer wasn’t all that deserving.

Harry Heflin became the acting president after the very capable Paul Miller resigned. The day before Byrd was to get his doctorate, Heflin and his Chamber of Commerce kin of Morgantown were taking him around to view the things he had made possible with his skill at the pork barrel. At every stop, the SDS and I greeted the group with signs objecting to giving a Klan organizer the University’s highest honor.

When acting president Heflin saw me, he turned what writers often call “ashen gray” and looked like he might get sick. I was obviously out of control. He would cure that.

Former University President Paul Miller, who by then was an assistant Secretary of Education in Washington, D.C., was sent to represent the federal government at the graduation ceremony where Byrd was to be given the honorary doctorate. Miller had signed off on hiring me at WVU and more than once encouraged me to be bold. In a chance meeting in downtown Morgantown he shook my hand and said, “I like young Turks.”

Miller’s new wife and her children walked with him toward the graduation ceremony. He saw me in the picket line against Byrd and stopped. He shook my hand, and introduced his new family. The Associated Press photographer took a picture of us shaking hands—with that picket sign in my other hand. Several years later, Kitty Melville, who had been a reporter for the Daily Athenaeum student newspaper, told me that the AP people were told that if they used that picture, they would never get another story from the University.

The SDS students had friends on the inside–the masters in social work graduates stood and turned their backs on Byrd as he was being honored by Heflin.

One week later, I was invited to a meeting with the university financial people. They wanted to know, since it wasn’t supporting itself, why they shouldn’t close International House. Pointing out that hardly anything at WVU was self-supporting, didn’t cause them to look up from their figures. Going by their standards, only the football and basketball teams would be left. They had orders and just needed to go through the motions.

David Hess, director of Student Educational Services and my boss, refused Heflin’s request that he fire me. Heflin closed International House and I was banished, with no annual pay raise and a feeling I would never get one, to a windowless balcony in the old Mountainlair. That decaying building was a large Navy-surplus dining hall in the hollow behind the wonderful old Mountaineer Field.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (, and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation ( I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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