Beloved, gay UT professor retires after 39 years

Guy Howard Miller

Guy Howard Miller taught history and religious studies since 1971

JOSHUNDA SANDERS  |  Austin American-Statesman
(via the Associated Press)

AUSTIN — Anyone looking for “an exhibit of Jesus pop culture gloriousness” has to look no further than Guy Howard Miller’s office, says Lindsey Carmichael, one of his estimated 10,000 former students.

The University of Texas professor who taught history and religious studies there since 1971 typically sipped a Diet Dr Pepper in his Garrison Hall digs after class amid an abundance of Jesus-themed refrigerator magnets, mouse pads and framed pictures.

“My ex-wife said it was Jesus-infested,” Miller said matter-of-factly.

Now that Miller, 69, has retired — his last class was Dec. 3 — he will have to find a place for his turn-of-the-century Jesus pictures and growing collection of Ben-Hur artifacts. For his former students, the bigger problem will be finding someone as colorful and as engaged in his profession.

Carmichael, 25, is among those who refer to themselves as “Millerites,” and she said she considers Miller more of a friend than a former professor.

Like others who have had a class with him, Carmichael says she still remembers what he said to her class during their first meeting: “Now kids, Dr. Miller is gay. Now, Dr. Miller also loves Jesus. And if you happen to have a problem with that, there’s the door.”’

“Religion for him is not a cultural assumption; it’s fluid and constantly evolving,” she said. “I’m going to be grateful to him for the rest of my life. Now that he’s retired, the university will never be quite as bright a place.”

Miller’s attentiveness is legendary. At the beginning of each semester, he would tell his students that he really wanted to meet them and would hold frequent office hours to get to know them, he said.

“I will have seen about 60 to 70 percent of the class by the end of the term,” Miller said.

He also held a number of administrative roles at the school, and his vision helped shape the Department of Religious Studies, which in 2011 will enroll its first graduate students. He created one of his most innovative classes, “Jesus in American Culture” — a multimedia course he started with a grant from UT’s Tech Services in 2005, complete with full-length video, audio recordings and transcripts available online.

He wrote “The Revolutionary College: American Presbyterian Higher Education, 1707-1837 ” and has contributed to several other books.

Miller is small in stature, but his voice and presence loom large. He has a mischievous twinkle in his eye even when he’s talking about potentially dry topics like the differences between Protestants and Catholics. He favors tweed jackets with button-down shirts in blue or canary yellow.

Miller was raised Southern Baptist in Graham with five sisters.

“I was the first to go to college,” he said. “I thought I’d be a laborer or a butcher like my father was.”

He earned a bachelor’s degree in music in 1964 and a master’s in history in 1966 from what is now the University of North Texas. After earning a doctorate in American intellectual history from the University of Michigan in 1970, he taught for a year at Hope College in Michigan before moving to UT.

The Rev. Marcus McFaul, who leads Highland Park Baptist Church, took three courses with Miller from 1980 to 1984.

“The greatest gift I got as a student of Dr. Miller’s is the appreciation of critical thought, and his animated description of religious thought made history come alive. Howard Miller is what put me on to the love of American religious thought. It allowed me to get the larger picture and still retain an affinity to a particular tradition, ” McFaul said.

Overhearing this, Miller said, “Marcus has done what I wish I could have done — which is remain a Baptist.”

Miller said the Southern Baptist church that he grew up in was “a very different denomination than the very conservative denomination that emerged after the conservatives purged liberals and moderates in the ’80s and ’90s.” He left the church in the 1960s because he disagreed with some aspects of Baptist theology and “more important, with its opposition to the civil rights movement.”

In Austin, he joined an Episcopal church for a few years but stopped attending because he grew tired of his sexual orientation being a problem, he said. He said he no longer attends a church, but if he returned to one, it would be a moderate Baptist church like McFaul’s.

Miller has received most of the university-wide and College of Liberal Arts teaching awards, including the largest undergraduate teaching award at the school, the $15,000 Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship.

“If I do have a calling, it’s to teach the gospel of liberal arts, not the Gospel of Jesus,” Miller said.

—  John Wright

WATCH: Officials at Okla. high school accused of bullying lesbian students into dropping out

What happens when anti-gay bullying comes not from students but from a school’s administration?

Several lesbian former students say administrators at Del City High School, southeast of Oklahoma City, are discouraging gay students from graduating.

One girl, Kelsey Hicks, says the principal told her to drop out and get her GED because, “You’re gay, you’re not going to do anything with your life.”

Another, Melissa McKenzie, said she was expelled from Del City after moving in with her girlfriend. “He [the principal] said if you go back to your mom’s house, you can go back to school.”

Both Hicks and McKenzie also say they were kicked off the Del City High School softball team.

A third girl who graduated from Del City High School said a school official once told her that being gay is an “unhealthy lifestyle.”

“He had found out that I was gay and he was on my case about every little thing,” she said.

According to KWTV Channel 9 in Oklahoma City, the school district issued a statement saying the three girls aren’t current students and none of them has filed a complaint.

—  John Wright