By Jeff Keeling
Johnson City’s oldest practicing attorney stood on the patio of his historic hilltop home, looking down over three acres of lawn and large trees. Someone else keeps up Sam Miller’s grounds these days, but when one is 90, that seems only right and proper.
Right and proper also would well describe a gathering Saturday at the Peerless Restaurant, where family and friends celebrated of Miller’s 90th. An hourlong visit with Miller a few days prior revealed a man whose life says “Johnson City, Tennessee” through and through – and whose accomplishments have impacted his church, the city’s growth as a medical hub, and the region’s airport, among other things.
Miller lives in former U.S. Congressman B. Carroll Reece’s former home – alone since his wife’s 2012 passing but with frequent visits from his children and grandchildren. He entered law practice for a firm with two principals whose names embodied early 20th-century Johnson City, James Epps and Thad Cox.
Samuel Burkhead Miller was born Sept. 4, 1925 to Samuel Ernest Miller and Kate Pitts Miller. The family lived in a large home at 413 Lamont Street. The elder Miller was a lawyer as well, and by the time young Sam was in elementary school, so too was his older brother, William, who went on to become a judge at the federal circuit court level in Cincinnati.
“Because of my father I was interested in the law, and my brother, so it was a normal thing for me to do,” Miller said.
He remembers a happy childhood. The family belonged to First United Methodist Church. William’s mother had died, but his stepmother (Miller’s mother) Georgia native Kate Miller, he said, “was a fantastic lady.”
Before long, Miller would meet another fantastic lady. While at Science Hill High School, he met Anna Marie Irish, who lived near Unaka Avenue. Miller said he was smitten fairly quickly.
“She was a nice looking young lady. She was smart as she could be. We just got along together.”
The two were still getting along together when both graduated in 1943 and Miller enlisted in the Navy. He served on a destroyer escort ship in the North Atlantic. Following his service, Miller attended the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and after he earned an undergraduate degree, he and Anna Marie were married.
Six children were born of the union: Sam Jr., Bill, Kathryn, Janet, Carol and Elizabeth. Miller finished his law degree in Knoxville and began a successful career with Cox, Epps, Powell and Weller.
“I was just doing what I was told at first,” Miller remembered. “At that time there was a lot of early law being created, and it was with those four. My primary work was in real estate, originally.”
He said the company closed purchases for Hamilton Bank, and it was during that time he met Robert E. Henry, who with Robert Dennis created Tennessee Plastics, Inc. (TPI). “I represented them for 46 years.”
Meanwhile, Anna Marie was at home raising the kids. Kathryn Wilder remembered a traditional home, a home that transitioned into the old Reece house starting when she was 13.
“He was pretty strict,” Wilder said. “We had to pick up sticks on Saturday (in the several acres of wooded yard). He put us to work.”
Wilder attended Columbus Powell Elementary, now the home of Johnson City Schools’ central office, and South Junior High. Anna Marie, she said, “was very involved in the school. Back then they had room mothers and she was heavily involved in the PTA and women’s clubs.”
The family often visited relatives in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and took trips to Nags Head, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, each summer. “He’d stuff all of us in a station wagon,” Wilder said.
She said her father taught the children the value of work and good manners, but had a fun side.
“He’d cook breakfast on Sunday night, he’d cook pancakes and scramble eggs. That was a fun little ritual.”
All the while, Miller was working to establish his career. He ended up involved in several important local endeavors. He served on the Airport Authority during a major expansion of Tri-Cities Regional Airport. And when Johnson City’s medical community was ready for a much-larger hospital, Miller said, he drafted the law that created the city’s Health and Educational Facilities Board. That created the borrowing capacity necessary to fund construction of Johnson City Medical Center.
The family attended his home church, First United Methodist, and while he served on a leadership board there, the church expanded, adding the space where its pre-school now operates.
Today, Miller practices a little law – just with the facilities board. “I’m just about ready to wind up,” he put it.
Around the old Reece house, the traces of a the old Congressman mingle with memories from time shared with Anna Marie. Her stained glass work and knick knacks offered a very present reminder of the couple’s 64 years together as Miller, who is recovering from recent hip surgery, padded around the house.
“She loved to do things,” he said. “She was a fantastic cook. She was a fantastic wife.”
In the kitchen, where photos of 13 grandchildren and a handful of great grandkids plaster the refrigerator, Miller stopped to reflect on his professional life.
“I’ve enjoyed my life and my profession. I feel like there’s been a progression through my life. I think it’s important for any attorney during the cream of your life to be successful, and I feel like I’ve been reasonably successful.”