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The Story Behind the Story: Nancy Kriplen’s new biography of Irwin Miller is featured in Traces: Indiana and Midwestern History

Irwin Miller was the Commencement speaker for my graduation as an MBA from Butler University, and I recall his speech as non-memorable and—uninteresting. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood: I had three small children and another on the way. But that probably inaccurate perception of a boring speech has nothing to do with the full life of this remarkable man who helped build the Cummins Engine Company and transform Columbus, Indiana into a shining mecca for arts and architecture.

Nancy Kriplen has written about the search for the true nature and career of the man as she wrote her biography J. Irwin Miller: The Shaping of an American Town. Her article in the magazine, a story of her own years-long research trail into this leader’s life and achievements, is rare in itself: we almost never get to follow the research trail behind outstanding and detailed biographies. The endless track through dusty libraries and obscure books and records and frustrating attempts and successes in the personal interview process are good reading in themselves. Nancy as researcher became Nancy Drew, girl detective, in tracking down distant relatives, people in their nineties and false and real leads, all the while trying (unsuccessfully) to convince agents in the scholarly and popular book market that the story was dynamite—good reading. Finally Indiana University Press saw the book’s potential.

And indeed it is good reading. Miller was a dynamic achiever from the start of his life. A genius with a multiplicity of talents ranging from mechanical engineering to violin playing, he was groomed for, and elevated eventually in the Cummins Engine company after he returned from college, graduate school and a grocery store chain work experience in California. Employing liberal employee and community action strategies as well as sound growth management, Miller brilliantly achieved, not only in the company but in public service and the arts. Columbus, Indiana, today is a living testament to the genius and generosity of Miller and his wife Xenia in patronizing the arts in Columbus in ways too numerous to detail.

But what is most important to me about the article in Traces is that interaction between the subject of the biography and his chronicler: the author’s obvious admiration for (and
sometimes frustration with) her subject: Miller the man. The elusive search on the part of
writers who tell the stories of real people to find the gold at the heart of humanhood and
success is fascinating. Nancy Kriplen’s article “J. Irwin Miller: Backstage of a Biography”—and her book—take us down the road towards understanding that.

Nancy Baxter is Managing Editor of Hawthorne Publishing. Nancy Kriplen’s book is available from Indiana University Press and among other sources.