by Gary Wunder
Dr. Brian Miller, a former chapter president, strong Federationist, world traveler, musician, and a wonderful man willing to help anyone he could, died on April 13, 2020, as a result of COVID-19. He took a trip to Jordan in mid-March and was forced to cut his trip short and return to the United States. When he developed symptoms, he first discounted them, but shortly thereafter he went to a doctor and was diagnosed. Initially he was told to go home and be on bed rest. When he did not improve, Brian was moved to the hospital. After several weeks that showed encouraging ups and discouraging downs, the world lost a really fantastic human being, and the only thing that we can say with certainty is that we are all better for having known and loved Brian Miller.
So profound was his life that his death was covered in the Washington Post on April 14 under the headline” Brian Miller, whose blindness inspired a career helping disabled students, dies of COVID-19.” The write-up was a wonderful tribute which included an interesting anecdote from Brian’s mother. In the article she said that several weeks before Brian’s graduation from high school, she got a call from a teacher saying that he was about to flunk a science course because he had not completed his work with the microscope and biology. One is left to infer that Brian did so well in other aspects of the class the teacher simply did not recognize he was blind and the foolishness of expecting that he directly use a microscope.
One of Brian’s goals was to visit five new countries each year. He equipped himself to make these visits by being fluent in four languages: English, Spanish, Russian, and German. As a report on National Public Radio noted, Brian’s mother has been busy trying to figure out all the trips he had planned in order to cancel them and get back the money paid in advance.
One of Brian’s friends was our state president in Virginia, Tracy Soforenko. On learning of Brian’s death, here is some of what he said to members:
“Today we lost a true friend and inspiring leader in the National Federation of the Blind. This afternoon, after over two weeks in intensive care, Brian Miller passed away from COVID-19. Brian has been a role model and mentor to so many members of our organization, including myself. Many of the major recent accomplishments of the Virginia affiliate are built on insights from Brian including the Project RISE program, the expanded college scholarship program, the chapter leadership development program, the hosting of the 2018 National Federation of the Blind Convention, and the efforts to invigorate chapters with engaging new programming. Brian brought creativity, humor, and energy to all aspects of our work but also warmth and friendship to his interaction with everyone. Brian made me think creatively, read better books, plan better vacations, and believe in myself and what we could accomplish together. We are heartbroken by this news and hope we can be together soon to console each other. As memorial plans are determined, we will keep people posted.”
It is clear from all the posts on Facebook and the activity on our listservs that Brian was beloved in the Federation and in his family. But in addition to being an active Federationist, he was also well-integrated into his community. Consider this proclamation:
P R O C L A M A T I O N
WHEREAS, several recently published photographs portray Brian Miller, fifty-two, of Alexandria, Virginia, in many locations from across the world: sitting atop a camel in Egypt, on the waters of a peaceful river in Oman, the sidewalks of London, and the beaches of Normandy. In most of these photos, he is in casual travel garb, in front of spots of natural beauty or historical relevance. And in some of these pictures, he wears a tuxedo, the unofficial uniform of one of his many passions, a cappella chorus singing; and
WHEREAS, Brian R. Miller, PhD, had just over a month ago returned to the United States from Jordan, one of sixty-five similar overseas trips he would take throughout his life. And all his friends knew Dr. Miller as an adventurer, but a prudent one, for he had recently written on his travel blog, “I’m pretty fearless, but not reckless. I’m a planner more than an improviser, but I am not a prisoner of my itinerary;” and
WHEREAS, Brian was viewed as a fearless man, and one of assuring resolve. And it was this resolve that carried him through his full life and dozens of countries worldwide, going back to his San Diego childhood. Born August 13, 1967, in Michigan and raised in California, he was one of the first of a large national wave of blind students brought into the mainstream public schools student body among their sighted peers in the 1970s and 1980s; and
WHEREAS, his commitment to education and knowledge compensated for the lack of resources for him and other visually disabled students during those times. Fluent in four languages, he earned a degree in Political Science from San Diego State University, and a master’s and PhD in history from the University of Iowa; and
WHEREAS, he settled in Alexandria in 2004, working for the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration. And in our City he was known for his generous volunteerism, serving as former Chair of the Commission on Persons with Disabilities, and for many years he was a member of the world-renowned men’s a cappella chorus, the Alexandria Harmonizers; and
WHEREAS, his travels with the Harmonizers, as well as his own, truly availed him to nuanced relationships as a performer, mentor, and friend, in Alexandria and the six continents he visited; and
WHEREAS, this inspiring journey came to a close on April 13, 2020, when Brian died at fifty-two from complications stemming from the COVID-19 virus. “While losing Brian to this pandemic is devastating to so many communities of people around the world, there was no one more rich with life experiences and love from so many people,” said friend and fellow Alexandria Harmonizer Joe Cerutti; and
WHEREAS, Brian Miller will truly be missed, and for those who knew him here or far away, their lives were better just for knowing him. Brian Miller leaves behind his mother and stepfather, Jane and Patrick McGinnis; father and stepmother Richard and Helen Miller; sister and brother-in-law Cindy and Marty Wimer, significant other Masuma Ali, and several friends and colleagues; and
WHEREAS, finally, and in his own understated and friendly style, he recently made note of his gratitude for his experiences and his abundant life, writing, “I’ve learned a few tricks over the years as a blind guy on the road.”
NOW, THEREFORE, I, JUSTIN M. WILSON, Mayor of the City of Alexandria, Virginia, and on behalf of the Alexandria City Council, do hereby recognize and offer appreciation for the well-lived life of a beloved Alexandrian:
“BRIAN R. MILLER, PhD”
In the City of Alexandria and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the City of Alexandria to be affixed this 23rd day of April, 2020, in tribute to a great citizen of our City, and of the world.
MAYOR JUSTIN M. WILSON
On behalf of the City Council of Alexandria, Virginia
At the time of this writing, what COVID-19 is and how we should deal with it is the subject of a contentious debate. Some believe that the major concern of our population should be isolation until the virus is eradicated. On the other extreme are those who believe that the virus is a creation of the media, a hoax, a direct attack on our constitutional rights, and a way of destroying our economy. Perhaps Brian’s own words will provide some perspective:
"After more than a week of self-quarantining at home, and dealing with increasingly severe symptoms of COVID-19, yesterday I finally had to call the paramedics and have them take me to Alexandria Inova hospital where I am now checked-in, and I am under their care. I don't know yet if I actually have COVID-19, as the test results aren't back yet, but I don't have the flu, so it's very likely COVID-19. The protocols and procedures were airtight, and the staff here have been unfailingly helpful and professional and kind. I just want to let people know that this virus is a monster; don't think that it is like the flu or that symptoms are mild. This has easily been one of the worst weeks of my life, certainly health-wise. This is a brutal, brutal virus; do not be indifferent or casual."
I can think of no better way to end this article than with a brief quotation from his friend Bonnie O’Day, who was asked to offer her memories at a board meeting of the Virginia Affiliate. Here is the way she concluded:
“When Brian was hospitalized with the COVID-19 virus, his friends organized several conference calls so we could share our experiences and wish him well. There were over seventy people on these calls, from all walks of Brian’s life. Each had a special memory or anecdote to share. Brian has been described as, “a witty extrovert with a powerful love for human connection and experiences.” We are fortunate to have had him in our lives. His passing leaves a hole that we cannot possibly fill. Each of us has our own special memories of Brian, so let’s take a moment of silence to reflect on the many gifts he has given us.”
In concluding this article, may I make a similar plea: That we take a moment to remember Brian, and then another minute to commit ourselves to making lives like the one Brian lived a possibility for all blind people. In this way we will offer to him the highest honor we can.