When Paul Miller started teaching math at Thayer High School in southeast Kansas, he found himself smitten with the new English teacher. They married and this week they will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary.
Paul and Margaret Miller, both in their 90s, have become best known for leading recycling efforts in Wichita for the past 20-plus years.
They took it up when they retired in the 1980s after working at Beech Aircraft. The Pro Kansas Miller Recycling Center carries their names.
Recycling, they said last week, became their way of trying to protect the outdoors, where they've camped and hiked over most of the U.S. and Europe.
They both grew up during the Great Depression, when children often ate while their parents watched because there wasn't enough food to go around. They learned not to waste.
"Our parents composted, had their own gardens, fished," Paul Miller said. "When we started doing this in 1988, recycling just seemed to be the natural thing to do to help the environment."
Single in Thayer
To hear Paul Miller tell it, Margaret didn't have much of a choice.
"What are you going to do in Thayer, Kansas?" he said. "There's old men and old maids. You have two young people working at the school. What else was she going to do?"
Even then, Margaret Miller could see through his sarcasm. "I could tell right away he was smart, still is," she said.
"I said something about having a broken watch that needed to be fixed. He said, 'Don't you mean repaired?' I was impressed he knew the difference."
The Great Depression had ravaged families. Working in the schools, they were among the few who had jobs. Paul's father had left home when he was 11, and he and his sister struggled to support their mother.
By the end of that first year at Thayer High School, the 22-year-olds had spent all their money by sending it back home.
"We figured we needed summer jobs to make it," Paul Miller said. "I heard they were hiring in Wichita."
It during the Second World War.
"They needed people to build aircraft, and Beech was hiring," Margaret Miller said. "So we went to Wichita for the summer.
"It's been a long summer 70 years."
Community and family
The Millers have always believed they owed a debt to the communities where they lived.
Paul Miller was so grateful that Greenwood County gave his mother $100 in welfare checks one year so he could finish high school, he has sent that county $500 a year to pay them back.
As a Boy Scout leader, he helped Robert Gates become an Eagle Scout. Yes, that Robert Gates former Secretary of Defense.
Paul Miller has worked with Junior Achievement and the Urban League.
Margaret Miller has volunteered with the Sierra Club and in 1990 became the first recipient of what is now the Bill Ward Award for environmental achievement by the Kansas Natural Resources Council.
Along with Margaret Bangs, another Wichita resident, Margaret Miller protested the building of nuclear power plants and helped organize the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board.
Paul Miller helps provide home health care for a disabled woman, now 97.
"When she lost her husband, I'd said I'd help take care of her," he said. "That was 18 years ago."
Margaret Miller spends two days a week volunteering at the Wichita Library.
"But one thing I'm most proud of is our children," Margaret Miller said.
They raised four children:
Tim Miller, 67, is a professor of religion at the University of Kansas.
Mike Miller, 63, is news editor for Thomson Reuters business news wire in New York.
Gretchen Miller, 60, is a former judge, law professor and attorney in Eugene, Ore.
Jeff Miller, 54, is assistant professor and program coordinator for the hospitality management program at Colorado State University.
Gretchen Miller said whenever they visit home, they know they'll spend quite a bit of time talking recycling.
"I remember visiting them many times in past years and spending part of the visit at Dillons in the parking lot, educating people, re-sorting incorrectly sorted recycling, and so on," Gretchen Miller said.
"Now when we visit we spend part of each visit at 'The Center'... sorting recycling and educating people."
'No deposit, no return'
Gretchen Miller remembered growing up in the 1960s, when every grocery store charged a few pennies' deposit on glass soda bottles. Customers returned the bottles and collected their deposit.
It had been that way since before World War II. Beverage companies would wash and reuse their bottles. By the end of the 1950s, cans had started replacing refillable bottles.
She remembers when drink manufacturers touted "no deposit, no return" bottles.
"Mom said, 'This is not going to be a good thing,' " Gretchen Miller said. "She always thought the grocery store should take back everything, even mayonnaise jars."
Two decades later, Margaret Miller saw bottles, plastic and cans filling the Wichita landfill. She and her husband joined a handful of others to form Sedgwick County Citizens for Recycling in 1989.
The group pushed for the city of Wichita to start a recycling program. When the city wouldn't act, the Millers and their friends did.
They once asked residents of the College Hill neighborhood to save newspapers, motor oil, car batteries and other reusable items for two weeks. The group collected 5,290 pounds of trash, which they delivered to a Wichita recycling company.
They set up three collection centers.
"We were at Towne East, Towne West and the Wichita Mall," Paul Miller said. "But it didn't take long for us to become overwhelmed."
They soon worked to get recycling bins in parking lots of various Dillons grocery stores around town.
Eventually, what the Millers and their friends predicted happened: the Brooks landfill was full. It had to close. The city had to pay $10 million to stop pollution from leaking out of it.
Recycling took on new meaning.
By 2004, a nonprofit group had formed, the city had donated a 23,000-square-foot building and the Pro Kansas Miller Recycling Center opened at 725 E. Clark, near Pawnee and Broadway.
Only open three days a week, the center was collecting 1,200 tons of recyclables a year by 2009 more than double what they took in the first year.
Paul and Margaret Miller still volunteer at the recycling center every day it's open.
The interest that started with saving the outdoors they loved from being buried in trash illustrate why they've stayed together.
They share the same beliefs, the same values, they say. Have for 70 years.
"One of our daughters-in-law once said it's good we married each other," Paul Miller said, "or else we'd have ruined two other people's lives."