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Founder of the “Germans from Russia” collection and one of the longest-serving retired NDSU employees – InForum

FARGO — The man who directed the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection (GRHC) at North Dakota State University is about to complete a career as one of the longest-serving staff members in NDSU history.

Michael M. Miller, 79, director and bibliographer of the NDSU Libraries Collection, will retire December 1 after more than 55 years at NDSU.

Miller joins Henry L. Bolley and CB Waldron in the award.

Only Waldron’s service was six months longer, while Bolley’s time with NDSU was nine months shorter than Miller’s.

Both Bolley and Waldron were hired in 1890, the year the school was incorporated as North Dakota Agricultural College.

Miller told The Forum he plans to volunteer for GRHC and for documentary projects with Prairie Public, so will remain involved.

“They let me keep my office so I can have a good time there,” Miller said, laughing.

His start at NDSU in 1967 can be traced back to an event two years earlier when bandleader Lawrence Welk, who was born in Strasburg, North Dakota, received an honorary doctorate from NDSU.

Miller, also from Strasbourg, knew Welk and his family and was invited to a dinner for the event by then-NDSU President HR Albrecht.

Man stands by a statue of Lawrence Welk
Michael Miller, creator of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at North Dakota State University, stands with a statue of Lawrence Welk at the Welk Resort on March 19, 2019 in Escondido, California.

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There, the President told Miller to let him know if he ever needed a job, and in 1967 Miller accepted the offer.

He called the President and was hired without an interview to teach library science and work at the NDSU library.

In 1978 President Laurel Loftsgard asked him to create the “Germans from Russia Heritage Collection”.

To date, Miller has never had a proper interview while his time at NDSU has progressed.

Miller has taken on other duties, writing a monthly column for the North Dakota and South Dakota weeklies, In Touch with Prairie Living, since 1996.

He plans to continue doing this for as long as he can.

Since 1999 he has been executive producer of 10 award-winning documentaries about Germans from Russia for Prairie Public.

The latest documentary, still in production, focuses on the Welk Homestead State Historic Site in Strasbourg, the birthplace of Lawrence Welk, Miller said.

Other important projects include his role in securing the Lawrence Welk Collection at NDSU Archives; the Dakota Memories Oral History Project; Assisted in the formation of the Tri-County Tourism Alliance in Emmons, Logan and McIntosh counties; and serves as President of the Friends of the Welk Homestead.

Miller also led the Journey to the Homeland Tour for more than 20 years, a heritage tour to Germany and Ukraine that allows people to visit their ancestral villages in Ukraine.

More than 700 people have traveled on Miller’s 23 tours from 1996 to 2019.

“For many of these people, walking on the ground … where their ancestors once lived is a lifetime experience,” Miller said.

Miller’s own family history can be traced back to one of the Black Sea Catholic villages near Odessa, Ukraine, on his mother’s side. Her family came to Strasburg, North Dakota in 1889.

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Peter P. and Mary (Baumgartner) Miller are seen with their children in this 1940’s photograph, back row, left to right: Donald, Ramona, Harold, and Oswald, and front, Pearl and Michael. The family settled in Strasburg, North Dakota. Michael Miller created the Germans from Russian Heritage Collection at NDSU.

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His father’s family came to North Dakota in 1894 from the then Romanian Catholic village of Krasna.

“I grew up speaking the German language and I’m glad I did because it helped me with my work,” he said.

Thomas Isern, a longtime friend and respected NDSU history professor, said Miller dedicated his life to documenting Germans from Russia and creating a world-class research archive at NDSU.

“With NDSU as his platform and base, he has become the accomplished bison, interested in all university matters and fascinated by our achievements in the lab and in the field. He’s a paragon of public service,” Isern said.

Miller wants to secure his legacy, so he established a foundation for the GRHC by designating the NDSU Foundation as a beneficiary of his retirement account.

The Foundation provides ongoing funding for staff and projects dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing stories about Russian Germans in North Dakota.

“We are in very good hands going forward,” said Miller.

In lieu of a party, flowers, or cards, Miller has solicited donations to the Germans from Russia Fund at this link from the NDSU Foundation.

Checks marked “German from Russia Fund” may also be mailed to the NDSU Foundation, 1241 North University Drive, Fargo, ND, 58102.

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