HOMER — A lifelong educator who turned a summer job into a swim-education empire is being remembered as “a great guy” and a “second dad.”

Bruce Miller of rural Homer died in his garage Nov. 1 as his wife of 51 years helped him to the car to drive him for medical help.

A slow leak in a dissected aortic abdominal aneurysm is what took him, said his daughter Kim McGuire.

Mr. Miller was 85 and still working, having taught a swim class in Monticello the night before.

“The guy was just really good for the kids, and some kids probably didn’t realize it,” said Jamie Rogers of Champaign, a 1979 graduate of Homer High School and one of thousands of young people who learned from Mr. Miller.

“He made me tough. I wasn’t tough,” said Rogers, who played football for Mr. Miller the coach. “He made me a man. I had a couple of chances to tell him, and I did.”

After college and a brief stint teaching at Ridge Farm, Mr. Miller moved to the Homer school system, where he stayed for about 30 years, retiring in 1995, said his wife, Jan Miller.

“He was first and foremost a PE teacher at all the schools. He coached football, basketball, track and field. He was a guidance counselor and taught driver’s ed and was a health teacher,” she said, scanning her memory for her late husband’s many endeavors.

Jan Miller, also a teacher earning “not enough money to make rent,” met her future husband in 1969 when the two of them held part-time jobs at the long-closed Adler Zone Center in Champaign, a state facility for children with developmental disabilities. They married two years later.

It was while he was a University of Illinois student — he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees — that another educator planted the seed for a side hustle that would define the Miller family’s future.

“One of his instructors told the class, ‘You have your summers free. If you want to do something, go to local motels that have pools and see if you can’t teach lessons,’” Jan Miller recalled.

“That’s where it started,” she said.

Chief Illini Motel at Five Points in Urbana, the current site of a Walgreens, was Mr. Miller’s inaugural motel swim lesson venue.

“That’s what he did every summer, including this last summer,” she said.

That routine also included after-school special instruction at motel pools to promising swimmers, including Olympic hopefuls.

When the Millers moved to Homer around 1978, they put a pool in at their home so that Mr. Miller could teach there.

“That’s when we started Miller Aquatics,” Jan Miller said.

Around 1990, they added a second pool and a fully-equipped health club.

“Here at the house we teach about 300 students a summer. A number are repeats. We’ve been doing that here since 1990,” said Jan Miller, declining to do the math on how many young lives her husband touched.

All four of Stan Burton’s children learned to swim from the master. That was long after Burton, of Champaign, learned life lessons from Mr. Miller on the football field.

A native of Homer, Burton said Mr. Miller was teaching when he entered grade school in 1967.

“He taught PE and driver’s ed. He coached basketball early in his career and later on, mostly football and track. He coached my two older brothers and then me when I got in high school,” said Burton.

As a freshman going out for football, Burton was impressed not only by Mr. Miller’s words but by his deeds.

“He always said, ‘We are going to coach you in football but our goal is to teach you more about life,’ and that’s pretty much what he did. He was a very Christian man. He started the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Homer,” said Burton, who quarterbacked under Mr. Miller’s tutelage.

Rogers said it was thanks to Mr. Miller that he finally memorized The Lord’s Prayer.

After all games, team members went into the gym, stood in a circle, held hands and recited it.

“You don’t horse around when you are doing that,” said Rogers.

Mr. Miller was filled with “tough love” on the field but had a huge heart for the young people in his charge, said Rogers. “He was so right on so many things.”

Rogers fondly recalled a practice when a rookie player, commenting on a mistake by an upperclassman, let slip a foul word, something their coach never did.

“Miller just looked at him. Everyone was dead silent. He said, ‘Hit the track,’ and that kid ran for the rest of the practice. That was all that was said. It was never addressed again. You could see him glance up at the assistant coaches. He was grinning,” said Rogers.

Another time, Mr. Miller had lost his voice and the team thought they’d be getting a break from his yelling.

“The first day of practice he had one of those battery-operated megaphones. He had no problem getting his point across to the guys,” said Rogers, who referred to their mentor as an “innovator.”

The coach and his assistants visited the homes of players’ parents, reporting on the progress of their children and outlining expectations for them.

“He was very welcome in all the homes,” said Rogers.

The Millers also opened their home to students.

Burton spent many Sunday afternoons in their basement watching film of their Friday football games.

“Jan would have cookies and punch. He just created such a great football atmosphere. Any of the track guys would say the same thing. He was kinda’ like another dad,” said Burton.

Burton formed a bond with the Millers in another way. He met his future wife, Susan, after she began teaching at Homer High School. As she began her career, Mr. Miller took Susan under his wing, becoming fast friends.

And when the Burtons started their family, they wanted Bruce Miller to teach their children how to swim.

“He grabbed our three older kids in the winter time and we would meet at the hotel pools. He used them as guinea pigs to teach those who were going to teach swimming. They all loved him,” Burton said of his children.

McGuire likened herself and her three siblings to the children of the cobbler who had no shoes. They did not learn to swim from their dad, instead getting his knowledge indirectly from those he had instructed to teach swimming.

“I never felt slighted. I just never had enough time with him. As I got older, I realized to love him is to share him. He loved so many. It was a very unique puzzle and we all fit,” she said.

McGuire said the family has been thinking a lot about what made their hard-working dad so special and concluded that he simply had an innate magnetism.

“He cared about learning more about people. My folks knew every wait staff. Anybody he encountered, he inquired about them. It was authentic. He truly cared about people,” she said.

Rarely a person to put his feet up, Mr Miller also made time for his 17 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, said McGuire.

“It was always a good time with him and he took it as well as he gave it,” she said.

Mr. Miller was an avid Illini fan who had not pre-planned any funeral arrangements so the family felt fortunate to purchase a burial plot in Mount Hope Cemetery east of Memorial Stadium that lines up with the 35-yard line.

“Our season tickets are about there. It’s fitting,” said McGuire, who shared one other story about the lifelong educator’s final minutes.

As he lay on the garage floor waiting for first responders, two deer ran by the open door.

“It was just perfect because he talked to the animals,” said McGuire. “They didn’t have conversations. He just told them what to do.”


Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).