Vermont lost one of its most generous — and colorful — philanthropists on Tuesday, February 4, when developer Robert “Bobby” Miller died of a heart attack, at the age of 84.
A self-made man who grew up dirt poor in Rutland, Miller gave away millions to Vermont nonprofits in cash donations and in-kind work through his company, REM Development. He and his wife, Holly, who survives him, contributed to the King Street Center, Champlain College, the Visiting Nurse Association, the VNA Respite House, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts and many other local organizations. Their 2013 contribution to the University of Vermont Medical Center was valued at $13 million.
Miller invented himself. With just a high school education, and a winning combination of charm and audacity, he worked his way up through the building industry in Vermont. Despite losing an arm at birth, he became an auto mechanic, then convinced a Burlington engineering firm to hire him as a draftsman. After learning on the job, he started New England Air Systems in 1972. Twelve years later, he sold the business to his employees. "It gets companies spread out to people who would never own them," he told me when I profiled the Millers 20 years ago in Seven Days. He started REM Development in 1984. Although it is based in Chittenden County, the company also built, bought and rehabbed properties in downtown Newport and Rutland.
Despite his financial success, Miller was not a typical businessman. He preferred verbal agreements to written ones and engaged in all manner of creative financing to spark economic development. He happily rented office space to Seven Days when the paper started in 1995 — a windowless room in the basement of his building, Miller’s Landmark, at the top of Burlington's Church Street. He suggested we pay $300 a month for the first year and, if Seven Days were still in business at the end of it, we could pay him the difference between that sum and the real rent — aka a balloon payment.
We had nothing in writing — just a handshake deal. When I expressed concern, Miller held out his good arm and suggested with his signature grin: “Touch me, I’m gold.”
Visiting hours are Tuesday, February 11, from 3-6 p.m. at the Robert E. Miller Expo Center in Essex Junction. A Celebration of Life is scheduled in the same venue on Wednesday, February 12 at 11 a.m. Burial will be held privately in the spring.