It was a packed Dane County courtroom the other day, and as usual, Mike Miller was in the thick of it.
It was a little different this time. There was no beautiful and mysterious defendant sitting at the defense table, as there was in 1980, when Miller covered the murder trial of Barbara Hoffman.
Miller, 67, covered Hoffman and so many others for The Capital Times across four decades, and did it with such accuracy and precision and unmatched insider savvy, that the gathering at noon on Nov. 13 was an event in his honor.
The people he covered all those years were dedicating the press room in the county’s new courthouse in Miller’s name. That’s right, judges and lawyers officially saluting a reporter. Talk about a stop the presses moment.
Miller’s long career — he grew up delivering The Capital Times in Stoughton, and joined the staff in the 1960s — included one terrible and unforgettable moment when he actually hollered “stop the presses.”
Late on the morning of Jan. 15, 1988, Miller was chatting with Dane County Coroner Bud Chamberlain in Chamberlain’s office. The coroner was planning his office’s upcoming holiday party, and he invited Miller to stay for an office lunch. Miller begged off. Nothing was happening. He needed to scare up some news.
Moments later, Miller was lifting his coat off the rack in the City-County Building press room when a startling announcement came over the public address: “Get into interior rooms and lock the doors.”
Miller called police dispatch, and learned that Bud Chamberlain had been shot by an armed intruder (he would not survive). Miller then phoned the Cap Times, minutes away from its final edition deadline, and told them to hold the press. Within 30 minutes, Miller filed a story that made the paper. He spent the next hours — “one of the most disturbing days of my life” — writing stories for the following day.
It was that kind of professionalism that brought veteran Madison attorneys like Dennis Burke and Jeff Scott Olson to the press room dedication earlier this month, along with county judges Bill Foust and Dan Moeser, police spokesman Joel DeSpain and many of Miller’s former reporting colleagues (Mike retired in 2009).
Foust and Moeser spoke at the dedication, as did Miller’s longtime friend and editor, Dave Zweifel.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson spoke, too. It really was an extraordinary gathering. Abrahamson recalled working as a young lawyer for the firm that represented The Capital Times. She spoke of how she learned she could trust Miller’s byline, and then she lightened things up by recalling another legendary Cap Times reporter, Aldric Revell, and how Revell once said the Wisconsin Supreme Court was so quiet “you could hear the justices’ arteries harden.”
Abrahamson smiled. “Not on my watch.”
The mood in the courtroom was anything but somber, though not lost on anyone was the serious cancer diagnosis Miller received in September. He had lost some distance off his tee ball and just wasn’t feeling well when he went in. The news wasn’t good, and there have been some tough days since. Miller wasn’t sure until that morning if he could be at the courthouse for the dedication.
He was there, smiling, buoyed by the turnout. “I am overwhelmed,” he said, words he repeated when I drove down to Stoughton last week for a chat.
We spoke about the high profile trials — Miller thinks he’s the only reporter in the country to have covered three murder trials in which there was no body — and Mike delighted in recalling his early days at the Cap Times.
One of his first jobs was driving around William T. Evjue, the paper’s founder. Once he started reporting, the city editor, Cedric Parker, took Miller aside and said, “When we’re done here we go to the Shamrock.” The papers were Downtown then, and the Shamrock was a favored bar.
“I took that not as an invitation, but an order,” Miller said. One of his first afternoons at the Shamrock, Miller witnessed a veteran reporter, Irv Kreisman, get into an argument with an attorney over a story in that day’s paper. The discussion ended when Kreisman decked the lawyer with one punch.
“I remember thinking,” Miller said, “that this was going to be an interesting place to work.”
He never dreamed he would do the work so well that 40 years on his name would be on the courthouse press room.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.