WILLIAMSBURG — Sen.. John Miller, D-Newport News, who passed away suddenly Monday at age 68 from an apparent heart attack will be remembered in greater Williamsburg as a fighter for public education.
Miller was born in Bryn Mawr, Pa. and educated at Northern Illinois University. He worked for 18 years as a television journalist in the region and also served as an aide to former U.S. Senator Paul Trible and an administrator at Christopher Newport University.
First elected to the Virginia Senate in 2007, Miller came to represent Williamsburg and portions of James City County in the 2011 redistricting. He was elected to his third term in office last November.
"John Miller was a wonderful advocate for the city, not only in Richmond, but in the local area and the entire commonwealth. He will be especially remembered for his steadfast support of local education and our children," Williamsburg City Councilwoman Judy Knudson said Monday.
Although they didn't always see eye-to-eye, particularly about who should represent the city after the most recent redistricting, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, praised Miller in a statement Monday.
"Senator Miller's untimely passing is a great loss. This is a very sad day for the Senate, the people of Hampton Roads, and the Commonwealth," Norment said. "As a long-time television reporter, John was very familiar to the people of our region long before they confirmed their trust in him with their votes. He continued that record of service at Christopher Newport University, and ultimately as a member of the Senate of Virginia. John was a tireless advocate for education and for Virginia's public schools. He was also a staunch defender of the interests of the Peninsula and of the people of the First Senatorial District," Norment said.
Del. Monty Mason, R-Williamsburg, who has served with Miller as the city's delegation to the General Assembly since 2013, said he looked on Miller as a mentor.
"Pamela and I are devastated at the loss of this great man and extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Sharron, his children, John and Jenny, and the rest of his family. The people of the Peninsula and the Commonwealth of Virginia lost a selfless public servant today with his passing," Mason said in a statement. "John was a mentor, confidant and colleague to me. From the moment I decided to run for the House of Delegates in 2012 until this past weekend, when we last spoke, Senator Miller selflessly guided me and offered invaluable advice and counsel. He was an honorable man whose focused, steadfast leadership on education issues impacted every child in public school in Virginia. Senator Miller was a role model to us all, showing us that kindness and compassion have a place in politics. I will miss him every day.."
Perhaps Miller's greatest legislative legacy is reducing the number of standardized tests required under the Virginia Standards of Learning. Miller's bills were the ones that reduced the level to near that required by the federal government. He felt that the plethora of standardized tests was creating a generation of students who were good at taking tests, but not in critical thinking.
Two other legislative passions that Miller pursued with less success were limiting the interest rates that car-title and pay-day lenders are allowed to charge borrowers and instituting a non-partisan commission to handle legislative redistricting. Although those bills died every year in committee, Miller was relentless in raising the issues year after year.
"A passionate advocate for improving education in the Commonwealth, Senator Miller had just won a big victory in the legislature with passage of his bill to reform high school education. He also worked to limit the number of SOL tests in Virginia schools. Those of us who knew Senator Miller personally will miss his kind, gentle spirit and the grace he offered to a political process sorely in need of it. We lost one of the good guys today," Jennifer Tierney of the James City County Democratic Party.
"John Miller was the best example of a public servant, and a decent, caring person. Like many, I have a number of his handwritten notes of thanks, appreciation or just good wishes. As a Senator, he had a powerful impact, especially on schools. I will miss him," said James City Country Supervisor John McGlennon.
Miller was praised across party lines.
Former Del. Mike Watson, R-James City, said Miller had an affable personality and eschewed partisanship. "We had a great working relationship. I was able to help him with some bills in the House. He helped me with bills in the Senate," an emotional Watson said Monday in a phone interview with the Gazette. "If it was a good idea he was willing to listen. He came to me as well, I didn't have a lot of Democrat senators come over to the House to come and meet with me and ask if I could get something through, but John would do that. That's what we're missing up there now."
"Williamsburg lost a humble and caring public servant today. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sharron and the Miller family," City Councilman Doug Pons posted on his Facebook page.
Miller's colleagues in the legislature noted his loss as well.
"He has been a strong voice in the Senate, both for his region and as an advocate for education, carrying bills focusing on SOL reform and improving physical activity in schools," said Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax.
"I am saddened to hear of the loss of my friend and colleague, Senator John Miller. Throughout his time in the Virginia Senate, he was a fierce advocate for electoral fairness, carrying legislation to promote redistricting reform and no-excuse absentee voting. His strong voice for progress and constructive solutions will be sorely missed," said Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
"Very shocked and sad to hear this news. Sen. Miller was a true gentleman and champion for public education," Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, posted on Facebook.
"Pam and I are saddened to hear of Senator Miller's passing. John was a longtime friend to our family and a kind and genuine man, who served the Commonwealth with distinction. We were both elected to the Senate in 2007 and were seatmates in the Capitol. He was a strong advocate in the General Assembly for Virginia's children, our military, and environment. His decades of service in Hampton Roads as a journalist, an elected official, and community leader have made Virginia a better place," Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement.
Miller served on Senate Committees for Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources¿ Local Government and Privileges and Elections.
As of Tuesday afternoon, funeral arrangements for Miller had not been set.