Jill Tyler remembers the day over 25 years ago when she, her husband, Pastor Steve Miller, and their young family of five kids drove into Vermillion in a rented van, headed south down Dakota Street, turned left on Main Street and stopped in front of the United Church of Christ-Congregational.

“Leah (their daughter) said what all of us were thinking: ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful church,’” Jill said. “And, at that time, we were really commenting on the architecture. It wasn’t very long – only a few hours and since then a few years and then a few decades – that have helped us realize how really beautiful you are.”

Jill was speaking at a special community farewell celebration for Steve and Jill held the afternoon of Dec. 19 in the church. On Sunday morning, Dec. 26, he conducted his final service there, ending a 26-year career of service as its pastor.

Those who attended the farewell celebration a week earlier learned how Vermillion has been served in so many other ways during the time that he and Jill have called the community home.

“This church family has embraced our family in so many ways and helped us to grow,” Jill said. “You’ve taught us about love and community and forgiveness and you’ve supported our family in so many ways.”

She spoke of the impact the church had on their children as they were growing up and the several humorous and human moments that occurred there over the years.

“Our kids talk about the church as their second home, as their safe place,” Jill said. “If they ever were in town and needed a ride or needed a nap or needed a snack … this is where they could come. They were always safe here. And they were given a chance to experiment.”

The first time any of their kids sang alone was during a service in the church.

“The first time that they spoke out and told you who they were and what they believed was right here,” Jill said. “That’s a gift that’s immeasurable.”

She noted how the church supported the Miller family when they built their home on the bluff; how the congregation barely blinked when Steve asked to take a one-year sabbatical so that Jill could finish her degree in Iowa City, Iowa.

“There really aren’t enough words to explain the way that you have helped me and Steve to be our family,” Jill said while fighting back tears. “I don’t know exactly how to thank you, each and all, for what you have been to us.”

She noted that she and Steve had talked about the right time to move on to a new adventure and had discussed that maybe that time would be when their youngest son, Joe, graduated. He graduated seven years ago.

“All l can say is,” Jill said, “you have loved us so well.”

Steve will continue fulfilling the spiritual needs of a congregation, beginning next month, at The First Church in Jeffrey, New Hampshire.

On Sunday, October 17, that church’s congregation voted unanimously to call Steve as its settled pastor, according to a news release on the church’s web page.

Steve attended high school and college in Massachusetts, began seminary at the Yale Divinity School but transferred to the Pacific School of Religion and graduated with a Masters in Divinity in 1987. He was ordained that year with full standing in the UCC.

Steve served churches in Bethlehem, Connecticut and Gilman, Illinois before becoming lead paster at the UCC-C in Vermillion. Jill is the chair of the Communications Department at the University of South Dakota; she will retire in the spring and join Steve in New Hampshire.

The UCC Congregational in Vermillion’s website notes that Steve also has eventual retirement in mind as the couple moves back east.

UCC-C church member Nate Welch, who served as emcee for the Dec. 19 event, noted that it was a “beautiful day and kind of a sad day,” but, ultimately, it was a time to celebrate Steve’s amazing career and the amazing service he offered to both the church and the community.

“We’re here today to ultimately thank Steve for over 26 years of service to the UCC in Vermillion, the Vermillion community and even the University of South Dakota,” he said.

Nate said he first met Steve approximately 20 years ago at a youth retreat in Iowa.

Nate said the group of youth he was with at the retreat had planned to sneak out at night and instead found themselves staying up most of the night with Steve.

“He helped us to be able to understand how you can grow closer to Christ in each and every thing you do,” Nate said. “I’m sure each and every one of us have those opportunities – to be able to remember that first impression that Steve gave us and also that impression that he’s given us in our community for over 26 years.”

The stories that were about to be shared by other members of the congregation and the Vermillion community, he added, “are stories simply of a man able to do service. That service, we all know, is greater than the life we all have here in the community and the life we all have. It’s a service of a time in which we all go to a greater place somewhere else; a time in which we try to grow closer in our faith … through the people that we’ve met.”

Nate then introduced the first of several speakers who shared, through their personal experiences, how Steve has had a positive influence in the Vermillion community for over 26 years.

Wase’ Wakpa

Rich Boyd, speaking for the local Native American community, said Steve was honored with a star quilt the week before.

“It’s our way of showing respect, but there are stories behind it and meanings to why we do these things,” he said. “Steve has come to be a part of our Wase’ Wakpa. He has learned some of our language and he has learned some of our songs. He’s one of the singers on our drum and we really respect that he has given us opportunities to be part of the overall community here – at the UCC in Vermillion and at the university. He has done a lot for us in that regard.”

Wase’ Wakpa is a Lakota term meaning “red stream.” French fur traders, early in the community’s history, translated Wase’ Wakpa to “Vermillion,” thus giving the community its name.

Rich noted that he and Steve have known each other for 20 years and commonly call each other Kola, the Lakota term for brother.

“But it goes even much deeper than that … Kola is somebody that you care for and love and you’d be willing to lay your life down to protect,” he said. “Steve means that much to me.

“He has always been there when we have asked things of him,” Rich said. Steve responded when local leaders in the Wase’ Wakpa community years ago asked him if the church could be a place for sacred ceremonies.

“He graciously offered his services in this very building,” he said, “where we could do some of our very sacred ceremonies and since then, our relationships have just grown and we are so grateful to him.”

Vermillion Community Theatre

Sandy Dickenson, who has served on the board of directors of the Vermillion Community Theatre for over 20 years, told the church audience that the theatre has a long history in the community, but in 1995, when the Millers moved to Vermillion, it had fizzled.

“We had little money, but we didn’t have a venue,” she said, noting that changes in goals and programs at the theatre facility in USD’s fine arts building and at the Washington Street Arts Center made them unavailable.

The Vermillion Community Theatre worked hard in promoting the goal of constructing what is now known as the Thomas H. Craig Center for Performing Arts at Vermillion High School.

“It takes a long time to build a theatre, and Steve wanted to light up a stage – any stage,” Sandy said.

That stage was placed over the chancel of the UCC-C Church. In 1996, the Vermillion Community Theatre offered “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in the church, with Steve playing the role of Snoopy in the musical.

The church also doubled as a theatre for the VCT’s presentation of “A Christmas Carol,” and Steve was able to secure a lecture hall in the old medical school building at USD for the production of “Godspell.”

“He helped keep theatre alive while the building (at the high school) was being built,” Sandy said.

The theatre at the high school was completed in 2002 and the VCT presented its first small show there, “The Dining Room,” followed later in the summer by a kids’ patriotic revue and a Christmas pageant in the winter.

She noted that the VCT needed a “big show” for a big launch in the community. Steve, along with Anthony Burbach, George Schlenker and Dan Miller, wrote that big show: “Robin Hood: Spirit of the Green.”

“It was brilliant, with a cast of kids in the first act and grown-up characters in the second,” Sandy said. “In the summer of 2003, there were 136 actors on that stage.”

More “home grown” musicals would follow, with Steve’s help, including “The Absurd Adventures of Lewis and Clark,” and “In Every Generation,” a show designed to help Vermillion celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2009.

As the VCT grew, it had the resources to present major Broadway productions, including “Guys and Dolls, “Damn Yankees,” and “The Music Man.”

“I’m not telling you anything you don’t know by saying Steve is amazing and those of us at VCT see a broad range of his talents,” Sandy said. “He can act and he can sing and he can dance on a stage, but he can also play his violin with the orchestra. In “Fiddler (on the Roof”) he even turned cartwheels. He loved playing the bad guy, the gangster, the con man, Scrooge – there must be a redemption story there.

“He writes scripts and music, but his greatest asset is resolving any conflict for the company,” she said. “He can spot problems before they become issues and carefully redirect actors young and old. He also sees the great value in building community through theatre.”

All members of the Miller family have participated in VCT productions.

“What they have taught us is that our organization has the resources to do great things for the Vermillion community,” Sandy said, “and that we are going to be okay.”

She emotionally asked for the church audience to give Steve “just one more” standing ovation and they readily did.

Vermillion Baseball

Steve Ward joked that Steve Miller and Jesus have at least one thing in common: They both love baseball.

“Baseball is a constant metaphor for Steve for how we live and how we should live with each other,” he said. “Individual achievement is built on team cohesion. We pick each other up during a slump or an error. Everybody has a responsibility on every pitch.”

During much of his 26 years in Vermillion, Steve played a leadership role in the Vermillion Youth Baseball Association.

“Steve chaired a committee made up mostly of dads who oversaw baseball players from 5 to 12 years old,” Ward said. “He dealt with angry parents, irresponsible coaches and a treasurer who really isn’t that great with money.

“All four Miller boys played and Steve often coached,” he said. “In preparation for these remarks, I reached out to the Miller boys and Caleb and Joe responded.”

Their stories were so similar, Ward said, “that I’ve combined them into one.”

Caleb noted that “When I was 10, I might have said that my dad was the most frustrating baseball coach I’ve ever had.”

Joe stated that “In the player draft, it seems he went out of his way to pick kids whose parents had signed them up against their wishes and were only a year or two out from dropping sports altogether. It was the most Steve Miller move imaginable and he coached like it.

“My dad was intent on ensuring every kid, willing or not, was an equal participant,” he added. “Each game, the lineup switched so every player, at some point, would have to hit lead-off, second, cleanup, etc. He also required every kid to pitch and every kid to play each position.”

Caleb reported that his dad implemented “the alphabet rule,” and set his team’s batting order by last name, “resulting in a 3-foot-nothing cleanup hitter and, if memory serves, a 16-0 defeat.”

The boys shared several other stories, concluding that how their dad coached baseball taught them at very early ages that the point of baseball was having fun and everything beyond that mattered little. They are lessons that the Miller boys still carry with them.

“Every moment is sacred, every person is sacred and it’s the work of Christmas that he (Pastor Steve) talked about today,” Ward said, with emotion. “I’m very thankful that you coached in this town. I’m very thankful that you ran baseball here. I’m very thankful that you’re my friend.”

The Welcome Table

John Lushbough recalled how years ago, Brooke McBride, pastor of the Methodist Church at the time, suggested that a program be started in Vermillion that served a meal to the community on a weekly basis.

John said he agreed to be a part of that.

“The first thing I wanted to do is to make sure it wasn’t the Methodist Church doing it – that it was a community thing,” John said. “That’s when Steve became involved.”

At each meal, there was an individual known as “the God guy,” he said.

“I never did like the term,” John said, “but really it was a centering moment for all of us, to sort of get us out of whatever we had come from. If anyone nailed those centering moments better than Steve, I don’t know who it would be.”

In the early years of The Welcome Table, people were learning from experience.

“I had no idea what we were doing, but it turned out the name of the operation had more to do with the welcome than the table,” he said, “and I would say 95 percent of the reason for that was Steve.”

John said he began to judge how successful each Welcome Table event was by how well people were welcomed. That’s been a challenge these days with the pandemic restrictions.

Steve helped find different groups to serve the meals each week “and he was good and welcoming people when they were there, no matter who they were,” he said. “I can’t count the number of meals that he or members of his family served or prepared to serve.”

John said when he learned Steve was leaving Vermillion, “I was happy for him, but I wasn’t happy for me. I’m not doing a guilt trip, because I hate guilt trips. I’m just telling you how I feel. He’s always there. He’s always there for me and now it’s going to be different, but we’ll survive that because he will always be the center spirit of The Welcome Table.”

He concluded his remarks by telling Steve how happy he has been to know him during his time in Vermillion.

“He’s the real thing,” John said. “He’s beyond the real thing. You can’t believe it, but a lot of you can. A lot of you know he is the real thing.”

University of South Dakota

“Steve has been my friend, my pastor for over 25 years, my neighbor, but he has also been a university colleague,” said Kurt Hackemer, provost at the University of South Dakota. “You don’t always want a pastor to teach religion on a university campus.

“When you do, you want someone who is certainly grounded in their service to the church, but is also a scholar,” he said, “someone who has intellectual curiosity, someone who wants people to think, especially at a place like USD where we are, by state statute, the state’s public liberal arts university where we are dedicated to the idea of open and free thinking.”

One of the courses Steve taught at USD is World Religions.

“It’s a very large class at the university,” Hackemer said. “It didn’t use to be a very large class. Old Testament, New Testament, World Religions are in our general education core which means they are filled with students who see them as the least offensive way to satisfy a humanities or a social sciences requirement. So, they are perhaps not filled with students who really, really want to be there.

“I’m here to tell you that over the years that those courses became classes that students really, really, really wanted to take,” he said. “Classes that filled. Classes that we put into some of the largest lecture halls on campus and there were waiting lists because of the experience that students had there.”

Hackemer said new courses were introduced.

“I think one of the most important courses that Steve taught for us was a class called “The Pipe and the Cross,” which is about the intersection of Christianity and Native spirituality and asking students to think about that and grapple with it and consider the world in which they live,” he said.

So many university students, Hackemer said, “received what they considered not just a great class, but so many students got what they considered THE (said with emphasis) great class, the best class that they ever had at USD. How do I know that? I got to read all of his evaluations.”

He read glowing reviews written by students about Steve’s teaching, about his knowledge of the subject material and his ability to engage with and challenge the people who took his classes.

“His classes were filled with people and experiences beyond the university,” Hackemer said. “Interactions with people from different faith communities, requirements to go out and see the world and come back and talk about it, tell the class about it, go and experience something different, open yourself up to what different people have to say. It was never about what to think.”

The university, through Steve’s presence on campus, also came to the UCC.

Hackemer said six students or more would be a part of the church for the school year and it has been wildly successful.

“Like every other community that you’ve been a part of here in Vermillion, the university is going to miss you,” he told Miller. “I’m going to miss you. USD is a better place because of what you’ve done. We’ve all benefited from it. We’re all the better for it. On behalf of the University of South Dakota, Steve, thank you.”

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