By James Ponder
The family of Gerald Wayne Miller, MD, a 1957 graduate of Loma Linda University School of Medicine, recently donated property in Dana Point, California, to the deferred mission appointee program at Dr. Miller's alma mater to honor his lifelong legacy of service to others.
According to Cynthia Miller-Dobalian, MD, the family learned about many of these generous deeds after Dr. Miller's passing in September 2012. "My father never told us these stories," she says.
Born June 24, 1926, on a farm in Nichols County, Nebraska, little Jerry moved to Colorado with his family during the height of the Great Depression, living first in Pueblo, then Colorado Springs, and finally Denver. His father drove a truck, while his mother worked at a small café.
Jerry took note of how hard his parents worked and decided, at a very young age, to become a physician so he could help people and be able to afford vacations for his family.
Jerry's 16th year was important for three big reasons. First, that was the year his family moved to Hastings, Nebraska, where his parents owned a cafeteria at the Naval Depot. Second, he met Betty Betts that year at a roller-skating rink. Shirley Stewart, Jerry's baby sister, describes Betty as "a cute little redhead" who made quite an impression on him: "Betty told me she went there with another boy," she shares, "but left with Jerry." Third, that was the year he learned to fly a plane.
The skill served a romantic purpose. In grand fashion, Jerry would "barnstorm" Betty's house before landing in a nearby field to pick her up for dates. Later in life, he got his commercial license and piloted a Learjet.
When he was 18, Jerry joined the Army Medical Corps, climbing the ranks to the position of Staff Sergeant. When World War II ended, he returned to Nebraska.
One fateful day as Jerry and older brother Elmer toiled in the hot sun, Jerry announced, "I'm not doing this the rest of my life! Let's go back to school."
With that, the boys packed their bags and set off for Union College in nearby Lincoln. On May 27, 1951, Jerry graduated with a BA degree in biology. Two years later, he called Betty Betts with an unusual request.
"I think he must have really liked her," sister Shirley speculates, "because he called her on the phone and said, ‘I got accepted to medical school in Loma Linda. Do you want to go along?'"
The unorthodox proposal struck a resonant cord with Betty. The couple married on August 20, 1953, and hit the road for Southern California shortly thereafter.
The next few years were busy ones for the newlyweds. In addition to Jerry's studies, the couple started a family. Cynthia was born in 1954; Cathy came along in 1956. In 1957, Jerry graduated from the College of Medical Evangelists, as Loma Linda University was known. Patty made her grand entrance in 1958, the same year Dr. Miller and Dr. James Jetton formalized their relationship into a professional partnership and lifelong friendship. In 1961, Baby Curt entered the world.
"The practice was busy," Dr. Miller-Dobalian remembers. "They were working long hours in the office, hospitals, nursing homes, and house calls day and night."
Even so, Dr. Miller always made time for family vacations. "He loved to fly," Dr. Miller-Dobalian says. "Our vacations were weekends in Palm Springs, flights to Canada, or all the way down to Cancun. Those are great memories!"
Dr. Miller was actively involved in Adventist church activities, serving as an elder of the local congregation, and member of the school board. As their practice boomed in the 1960s, Drs. Jetton and Miller erected a medical office in Bellflower. In the 1970s, they purchased Woodruff Community Hospital and constructed a medical building that stands to this day.
"Loma Linda University, which trains physicians with a special emphasis on mission work, had an impact on his life." Dr. Miller-Dobalian offers. "He was a medical director at Red Cross for many years. He flew into Mexico for 20 years to do charitable work, first with Liga International, the ‘Flying Doctors of Mercy,' and then as head of World Health Volunteers. One of his big mission trips was to aid victims of the 7.5-magnitude Guatemala earthquake in 1976."
Todd Mekelburg, director of planned giving for Loma Linda University Health, says the family's real estate gift will honor Dr. Miller's legacy by enabling young people of limited means to the ability obtain a quality education.
"Because of Dr Miller's strong belief in medical missionary work," Mr. Mekelburg observes, "the family requested that proceeds be used for the deferred mission appointee fund at the School of Medicine. The fund continues to grow because of gifts like these. Loma Linda University Health is equipped to receive gifts of real estate, and we're thankful the Miller family chose to provide so generously."
The last known photograph of Dr. Miller depicts him sitting in a wheelchair, grinning from ear to ear, clutching a garter. Patty McLennan, the third of the Miller kids, recalls the occasion.
"It was a wonderful day," she shares. "My middle son, Ryan McLennan"—a 2012 LLU School of Medicine graduate—"was married that day. It was time for the garter to be thrown. By accident, my son, the groom, way overshot all the young single men. In one accord, these young men turned around and began their mad dash toward the garter. Suddenly and in unison, they all came to a screeching halt. The garter had landed at the foot of this 86-year-old man in a wheelchair."
After retrieving his prize, Dr. Miller held it long enough for the photographer to record. "Then, with Betty, his bride, next to him," Ms. McLennan concludes, "he gladly surrendered his spoil for a do-over."
Like many other recollections of Dr. Miller's life, the memory of this event will linger for a long, long time.
Readers interested in learning more about how gifts of real property benefit Loma Linda University Health are invited to contact Todd Mekelburg in the office of planned giving by phone at 909-558-4553 or online.
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