Quintessential people

Mike Miller: A Man’s Safari

The five million Swahili people of southeast Africa have a word. The word is safari. It means grand journey.

by Marissa Plescia | Photography by thomas balsamo

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That is Mike Miller, the prototype resident of two simultaneous lives, each more grand than the other. Miller is a famed local jeweler whose dreams have opened a universe of hunting, adventure, and unexpected experience.

He’s on a trip. The Swahilis would understand Miller perfectly. Mike Miller is his own trip.

In one life, he is Mister Main Street, a gregarious, smiling merchant with a heart of refined gold. He has a thousand friends and 19 godchildren, though none of his own. “Put the godchildren all through college,” he says offhandedly. It’s a point of pride, because it’s who he is.

If you operate a worthy civic cause around Barrington, you rely on him as a cheerful contributor. “I gave in the area of six figures last year, but it was sort of a down year economically,” he says from the snug throne room of his jewelry emporium on West Main. “But this year has been much better, so I’ll probably give….’’ His voice trails off as he reconsiders. No use seeming to brag. But the number will be comfortably into the six figures.

He is the definitive small-town capitalist. Miller’s bright open smile, genuine affection for folks who come to find unexpected treasures, and devotion to his town fill all the expectations.

“My customers here, for 45 years, have been my friends,” he says. “I don’t just sell them jewelry. They are some of the very best people you will ever meet, and I’ve loved doing this. I have customers in every state and many countries. This is how I learned to do business.”

As if on cue, an elderly local customer is buzzed through the secured door to his store, and he gently guides her through the decision to sell a family heirloom. He stands close to all his customers and talks to them. He is not selling a product; he is selling trust in Mike Miller’s values and courtesy. She is happy. It’s a good deal for her.

But that is only one life.

In his other life, he is an arch villain. He abides the insult. He’s been called worse. But don’t be too sure, he says. He knows who is he, but perhaps you don’t.

His soon-to-be finished biography will tell the story of his other life, the one largely hidden from those who buy his exquisite diamonds and emeralds. It’s to be called “Facing the Charge”, which could be a literal interpretation of that other life.

He’s a big game hunter who’s hunted every big animal in every country of Africa and beyond. “The book will be the story of my 63 safaris,” he says.

He has looked down the gaze of large, charging creatures that would have killed him if they could reach him unimpeded. But he killed them first. Miller might be one of the best shots in the world, with an accuracy more precise because it’s exercised under deadly duress.

Mike Miller kills everything he aims to shoot. His trophies are a testament to nerve, accuracy, and willingness to spend handsomely for his craft. He has hunted everything everywhere.

And he knows that killing large African animals will make him a villain to many, especially in this century of refined moral judgments. “I took the city editor of the Chicago Tribune to Africa on one safari,” he recalls of decades ago. “I asked if he wanted to shoot. He shot one animal, and then wrote about it in the newspaper. He got 45 death threats. I got 35.”

Miller knows all the reasons critics show disdain for his hunting but he weaves a subtler alternative plot line. What if Mike Miller is not a callous killer at all, but in fact has saved far more species than he ever damaged? What if he is an effective and deliberate conservationist? What if the greatest heartbreak of Miller’s life is his lost herd of 36 rhinos and nearly as many elephants? And that his greatest achievement is enhancing the genetic longevity of South Africa’s sable antelope?

He has risked his life to save animals. To understand that interpretation of Mike Miller, you’ll have to sign up for his metaphorical safari through time and space.

Places, far far away

Miller has been anchored in Barrington for four-plus decades, but there are dozens of locales deeply imbedded in his soul. Drive 810 miles northwest to Leeds, N.D., to find the town of 450 where he grew up.

His dad taught him to love the mesmerizing glint of precious gems there and the lure of hunting in the 1950s. He was the middle of Milo and Jean’s three children, and their only son. “Growing up in North Dakota when I did, hunting was what you did,” Miller recalls. “Dad was one of the greatest shots in the country, but he didn’t get to shoot as much as I have. He did not have the money for it. In North Dakota in those days, you got your (driving) learner’s permit at nine, your license at 10, and then at 11 you drove to Chicago.”

In between, you piloted a combine at dawn and delivered a stranger’s baby as the hometown doc’s drafted assistant.

Dad had set up shop in Leeds after serving two years of World War II on Guadalcanal, where he converted every pilot’s watch to a stainless steel mainspring. American pilots in the Pacific lived and died on the navigational accuracy of their wristwatches.

He came back to North Dakota as a watchmaker “because people told him you had to drive 35 miles in any direction just to get your watch fixed,” Miller says. But the elder Miller wanted permanent stability over his commerce, so he commuted 200 miles every day for four years to get his pharmacy degree while he operated a jewelry store and shared in raising three kids.

His son took the same path to become a pharmacist with a thirst for jewels.

Miller’s uncle in Barrington, Al Borah, was among the first large landowners, and Mike came to help him cut 3,000 acres, then stayed to buy Esh’s Pharmacy, one of Barrington’s oldest stores. “I’d get there about 5 a.m. to work on jewelry in the basement, then open the store at 8:30, and then work until nine at night. Then I’d do it all over the next day. Lots of 21-hour days.”

But to understand Miller more clearly, you need to go further. This time all the way to the steaming plains and engorged rivers of Zimbabwe. The nation of 8 million in southeastern Africa was called Rhodesia then.

It was only 8,500 miles to the front porch of Miller’s house.

Miller had found that securing the world’s best diamonds and stones often took him to the “commodity” mines of Africa. “I’d go for a week and then stay and hunt for a week,” he said.

And eventually he and a business partner bought a ranch in Rhodesia. It was 500,000 acres. That’s 780 square miles.

It was not only home to thousands of Africa’s grandest animals, but also was home to 1,200 native Rhodesians who grew crops and built their lives on the ranch. Miller hunted there, but always far less than the government wildlife mangers of Rhodesia suggested he do to help thin the herds and keep them healthy.

“We then discovered that we had 39 rhinos, both black and white ones on that land, and we herded them from a sheltered area up some dried river banks to a remote area in order to protect them from poachers,” he remembers. Miller mounted machine gun positions to fend off armed poachers who wanted to kill the rhinos for their prized horns.

The market for those who believe the horns bestow magical medical benefits paid $65,000 per horn then. For a land drenched in deep poverty, a $2.5 million haul was too enticing to ever ignore, regardless of how grand a live rhinoceros is.

“I risked my life for the rhinos,” he says with some sadness. As for the armed poaching gangs, Miller reiterates only that he kills what he shoots.

But that episode ended in 1984. “We normally stayed at the ranch for six weeks, but my partner and I were both gone from the country when the army came.” Miller says.

Robert Mugabe’s nationalist insurrection had taken the country from its white colonial controllers, and that night Mugabe would take Miller’s ranch. “They killed all the rhinos, the elephants, and water buffalo. They burned the house and drove off the 1,200 farmers. It was just greed, nothing else.”

He thinks of the ranch now, but cannot contemplate ever returning. “Mugabe gave it to people who would kill me on sight,” he says.

The list grows every year of African countries where any foreign hunter would need a heavily fortified military escort to survive.

Golden throne

Miller is 66 and anchored by bonds that are commercial, spiritual, and cosmic to the two-story brick business that occupies 123 W. Main Street in Barrington.

But he is no Babbitt. No smugness or limits on him. He is a native son of a savage, angry, complicated world leavened with a full palette of experiences.

Everybody thinks they know Mike Miller because his jewelry emporium is a marvel. It’s not so much a jewelry store as it is Smaug’s gold hoard with its own dragon. Miller is always armed.

There are rare, precious stones in that building large enough to choke a horse, if a horse had an appetite for world-grade diamonds. He does not order these gems from a catalog. His original gurus, besides his dad, were Lazare Kaplan and Harry Winston, New York’s two premier jewelry princes of the 20th century.

“Dad took me to meet them when I was 15,” be said. “It was an entire college education in two days. Winston taught me to never sell junk. Always find the very best. So that’s what I’ve done. What I deal is the top one-tenth of one percent of all jewelry.”

He has his own diamond cutters. He knows which mines produce stones unsullied by revolution and innocent blood. He knows which deep fissure produced each of his stones.

One brightly lighted glass-covered case with rubies and sapphires leads to another and then another, all filled with piles of diamonds and gold. Here’s a nifty necklace. Only 50 thousand. There’s a bracelet, $70,000. Maybe the diamond earrings would catch her fancy. It’s only $90,000. I’ll take two. And then, in the far room with no particular announcement, sits a diamond, ruby, and gold necklace for $1.25 million. Write a check. It’s yours.

Does anyone walk into 123 West Main Street and write a check for a $1.25 million? “Sure, they do,” says Miller. Often? He smiles and nods as if you needed to ask the obvious.

“I sold my first diamond when I was 11,” he says. He was hooked that day. But Mike Miller is always hooked on something – politics, civic advancement, or chasing the perfect hunt. Maybe it will be partridge in Spain this fall or pheasant in England next year.

In truth, he’d always been hooked, and he’s not stopping. “Retire?” he replies incredulously. “I don’t even know what that would be. I have a better plan. I plan on giving my very last five-dollar bill to the undertaker on the way through the last door.”

And then begins the grandest safari of all.

Here are some words other shared about Mike Miller.

Bruce M. Bell, M.D., Friend

I have known and appreciated Mike Miller for at least 38 years. As a family physician, I had the pleasure of first knowing Mike as the pharmacist at Esh Pharmacy in Barrington. First of all, Mike is his own man. I appreciate his opinion on many subjects, and I must say he is almost always correct in his observations and opinions. Secondly, Mike is always available to help someone in need. To this end, Mike is truly a special person. His contribution to the Barrington community is unsurpassed. He has been an advisor to me over the years and his advice is more than appreciated.

Steve D’Amore, Friend

Mike has been my family’s neighbor in Barrington Hills, and our dear friend, for more than a decade. There are dozens of things that make Mike a special neighbor and friend, too many to capture in a few words. First and foremost, Mike is generous and courageous. In fact, we should call him Mike “the lionhearted,” which would capture so many things about his personality – his big-hearted devotion to friends and family; his fearless pursuit of the ideals in which he believes; and, of course, his unmatched commitment to outdoor pursuits and preservation. When we built our house in Barrington Hills, Mike was among the first to welcome us to the neighborhood, with his charming personality, a big cowboy hat, and an oversized friendship to match. Mike has also been a treasured adopted “uncle” for our son, as he is for so many other kids who’ve had the privilege to spend time with him – in town, in his shop, or hunting in the field. We’re blessed with so many great neighbors, Mike included, and could not think of a better Barrington area resident to be honored in these pages.

David Hirsch, Neighbor

Most people know Mike as a jeweler, an avid outdoorsman, and someone with outspoken conservative values. While all true, I have gotten to know Mike from a different perspective, as his next-door neighbor. I must say it’s been an illuminating experience. All joking aside, when I think of Mike, three thoughts come to mind. He is generous, authentic, and patriotic.

Mike is the type of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. He has been exceedingly generous, supporting dozens of organizations throughout the community, around the United States, and beyond. Mike’s actually a very sentimental guy with a soft spot for issues that affect kids and families. I should know, he’s literally supported every cause and organization my five kids have been involved with. I’m also sincerely grateful for his generous support of organizations like Barrington Area Community Foundation and Illinois Fatherhood Initiative, to name a few.

Mike is one of the most authentic people I know. What you see is what you get. If he says he’s going to do something, you can take it to the bank. The flip side, simply put, is that he’s not politically correct. While I don’t agree with all his views, I admire Mike for having an opinion and putting his money where his mouth is.

Mike’s love for America goes beyond the flag in his front yard, or on the side of M.J. Miller Jewelers. He has a tremendous respect for those who have served and sacrificed. I think it’s an extension of the hard work ethic he inherited from his father. Let’s just say if you found yourself in a foxhole, you know he’d have your back.

The world’s a better place because of our friend and neighbor, Mike Miller.

Jim Holden, Friend

I’ve known Mike for many years and consider myself privileged to be counted amongst his friends. Over the years, we have both experienced ups and downs; in business and in our personal lives. But the one constant that never fluctuated has been our commitment to helping each other and those around us. During good times and bad, I could always count on Mike. I think that I can speak for all his friends in saying that Mike is steadfastly loyal to all of us, to his values that put people first, and everything else second, to fulfilling his commitments, and to going the extra mile when it is totally unexpected, even when it’s for someone he hardly knows.

With Mike, there’s never much doubt about how he’s feeling. Sure, he’s diplomatic and considerate of people’s feelings, but I have never found him to hold back on something that he feels is important. His interests range from that of our great nation to the conservation of wild animals in Africa. He is never short a point of view, but it’s always thoughtful and well-intentioned. I never tire of listening to him, for if there is one man who possesses the ability to know what’s right, has the will to choose it, and the strength to make it endure, it is Mike Miller.

Bill Kennedy, Friend

I’ve known Mike Miller for many years, but the Montana Cattle Drive in 1989 really cemented our friendship. The cattle drive was held to commemorate Montana’s 100th year of statehood and I would like to tell an entertaining story relating to that experience. We had seven long days riding on horseback. The first morning was one of the most memorable of the ride. When Mike prepared to mount his horse the first day, the horse was not cinched properly and the saddle began to slip. Determined to get on; and being as strong as he is; Mike continued his effort to mount the horse. By the time his leg was over the saddle, the saddle had slipped under the belly of the horse. Mike was in the saddle, but under the horse holding on for dear life. Everyone was amazed at Mike’s strength and determination. This easily could have been a scene from the movie “City Slickers”. This is just one of many examples of Mike’s steadfastness. He is honest, caring, and generous with a great sense of humor. Just being around Mike has made me a better person. Kindness is part of his very being and through his example, I have learned it is better to give than to receive. I am honored to be Mike’s friend and would do anything for him.

Charlie Kirk, Friend

I am a close friend of Mike Miller. He is one of the most outstanding and amazing men I have had the fortune of meeting. He has radically changed my life through his unending generosity and belief in me. He is truly “bigger than life” in more ways than one. When I was 19 years old, I came to him when my organization really needed help. He believed in me when no one else did, and thanks to his support and his self-sacrifice our organization is thriving on 700 college campuses across the country and in all 50 states. Mike is a man of character and a man of his word. He will never go back on a promise, and will stand by with honor and integrity at all costs.

Mike has taught me the value of hard work, the importance of staying true to your word, and what it means to be an American. He has been there for me when many others were not. He is the most patriotic, generous, passionate, honest, and America-loving man God has put on this earth.

Mike has changed my life beyond anything I could put into words. I find myself many times asking Mike, “How can I repay you for all that you have done for me?” He said, “When I was young, older people believed in me and now I am paying it forward. And when you get to be my age, I want you to do the same.” And that is exactly what I plan to do.

Rick Mariani, Employee

I have known Mike Miller for 25 years (most of my career in the jewelry industry). It has been a privilege and a blessing to know Mike Miller, but also to be employed by him for the last 16 years. Being in the jewelry industry for the last 32 years, you develop a lot of close relationships and friendships with people. Many times in passing, I would see this guy walking in the hallways with this cowboy hat on in Chicago’s jewelry district, and never really knew who he was. We would say hello to one another but were never formerly introduced. I asked some people in the trade, “Who’s this guy walking around with the cowboy hat on and always dressed so well?” The answer was, “Oh, that’s Mike Miller, and he owns a jewelry store in Barrington.” Little did I know at the time that I would one day be working for the man.

Mike Miller has not just been an employer to me. He is like a big brother, a father, and a friend who has been willing to help me with any situation from a deep personal issue to a business issue. He has displayed this with me and everyone he comes in contact with. Back in 2001, I made a passing comment about how I would love to take my dad to a World Series game, which was his dream. It was late on a Monday afternoon and the Series began between the Yankees and Diamondbacks. That evening before the workday ended, he approached me and told me that there will be two tickets waiting for me in a hotel in New York City and to book the airfare and take my dad. My father passed away five years ago and with Mike Miller’s help, I was able to fulfill one of my dad’s biggest dreams.

Jerry Nerheim, Friend

I have known Mike Miller for nearly 15 years. We first met through a lifelong friend, and over the years have formed a lasting business and deep personal friendship.

As a businessman, I have tremendous respect for the way Mike runs his business. He has integrity and takes great pride in his work, providing his clientele with value and quality, for a fair price. Mike is incredibly hard-working and invests long, long days just to serve his customers. He designs his own jewelry as well, and has customers and friends around the world. After 45 years in business, it’s clear that Mike is passionate about his work and it shows. He told me that if he won the lottery tomorrow, he’d be right back at work the next day because he loves what he does so much.

What sets Mike apart is that he genuinely cares about people and tries to make life better for everyone he comes in contact with, especially young people. He has 19 godchildren and he’s the one they call if they are ever in need. I remember driving with Mike more than 600 miles to visit a friend who was ill. I know that Mike would drop what he is doing right now and be here if I needed him too.

Mike grew up in North Dakota with loving parents and a strong sense of community. He learned from an early age that what matters most in life is who you are and who you care about. He is a true friend.

Bob Payton, Friend

I met Mike many years ago working at a business in Barrington, and through mutual customers and acquaintances. Right from the start, I realized that Mike was a force in business and someone that you wanted to be around. Over time, we developed camaraderie through my emerging business and his. Mike was loyal to me and my new business venture, even so much as recommending and referring us to his customers. Over time, my family and I came to respect and rely on Mike not only as a businessman, but also as a mentor, philanthropist, and friend.

Mike’s strong character in business and loyalty to friends and peers puts him in a category that not many achieve. Besides his business savvy, his wit, and clever stories about his travels draw you to want to know him better. Yet, in the midst of all that, Mike is a caring and tenderhearted man (don’t tell him I said that…) that cares deeply about his family, friends, and community. Very few people have had an impact on my life the way that Mike has. I consider it an honor and privilege to know him and I value him as a great friend. At the risk of sounding cliché, Mike is one of those people that leave a hole in your life when he is not around, but then fills it up when you see him again.

Jennifer Schoonmaker, Client

I met Mike seven years ago when I was looking for a jeweler to repair my engagement ring. Mike was highly recommended to me as someone I could trust to reconstruct my ring. Upon meeting Mike, I was instantly put at ease, and knew I was in good hands. During that visit, Mike impressed me with his obvious love for his business. As a new retail business owner, I found myself instantly drawn to learning from Mike’s 40 years of experience. Whether Mike had realized or not, he became a mentor to me after that first visit. Over the years Mike has emphasized the importance fostering relationships, standing up for what I believe in, and paying it forward. I am inspired by his successes, how he handles life’s challenges, and his overwhelming support of our community. He once told me, “Retail is not for the faint of heart, but if you love what you do, and strive to be the best at what you do, you will be successful.” Mike has become one of my biggest supporters. Now going into my 10th year of business, I believe it’s people like Mike who have helped me along the way.

Lorin Spak, Client

Around 1975, after another long five o’clock commute home from downtown Chicago to Tower Lakes, I commented to my wife, Susan, that her new earrings were very pretty. She replied that she had picked them up at Esh Pharmacy (at that time that was the only pharmacy in the Barrington area – located in the Barrington Commons). I dropped the thought. Several weeks later, there was a repeat of that conversation. This time I asked why a drug store would be carrying costume jewelry. Susan replied that they were real jewels and that Esh had lots of “stuff.” I asked her to take me with her on her next trip to Esh so I could see what she was talking about.

At Esh there was a small glass case with a smattering of jewelry, but when Mr. Miller greeted Susan, we were immediately escorted into his private office. The safe flew open and the “stuff” came out. It was a very expensive trip to the drug store! That’s how I met Mike.

We became lifelong friends. After Mike opened M.J. Miller Jewelers, we also became lifelong clients. Mike and I shoot clay targets together and spend time just talking. He has been wonderful to Susan. After 39 years we still love him. He is loyal and honest beyond expectations. He is an honored member of the community and an extremely generous supporter of local charities and great political causes.

Norval Stephens, Friend

If you need to put a shoulder to the wheel, really need to, then call Mike Miller. I should know. I have had to call a few times. Mike has a keen sense of community, but through the lens of a realistic appraisal of needs and a perspective on what kind of effort will work. Sometimes, you may get an unexpected response. If the task meets both standards, Mike will really lean in. No matter what, Mike will bring a knowledge of the community, a feeling for high quality, and a burning desire to be sure whatever he gets behind, gets the kind of support it needs. He can be a tough judge of situation and character. But, if he puts a shoulder to the wheel, the wheel will roll.

Fmr. Congressman Joe Walsh, Friend

Mike is a very good friend ... more like a brother. We met back in 2009 because of politics. We were introduced by a mutual friend from the Barrington area after I won the Republican primary. I could not have been elected to the United States Congress without the unwavering support of Mike Miller. Mike is a cowboy, a true patriot, a man of his word, and the most loyal friend a man could have. I would go to war with this man, and sometimes feel as if we did! Mike has the biggest heart of anyone I know, almost to a fault, and truly cares about his friends and his community. They are his family. They don’t make them like Mike Miller any more.

Dede Wamberg, Friend

For many years, our community has had the benefit of Mike Miller’s contributions of jewelry, fine artifacts, and financial support for charity functions. The first time I called upon Mike was for a donation to the Barrington Arts Council, and his store was still at Barrington Commons. I had never met him and I was a bit nervous about asking for a piece of jewelry. Needless to say, it was the first of many occasions where he was generous to any organization that needed to have something that sparkled for a silent or live auction.

Another word that describes Mike is quite surprising for those that don’t know him. Watch a good movie with a sad ending and if it brings a tear to your eyes, it will to Mike, too. He is a sentimental guy and has been known to sprout tears at the drop of a hat if it makes him very sad, happy, or joyous. He is also sentimental about friends, especially those that are no longer with us. I am proud to call Mike my friend.

Peter Yankala, Friend

Mike Miller was a pharmacist and managed Esh Pharmacy when I first came to Barrington in 1974. The pharmacy anchored the west end of the Barrington Commons and Phillips to the east. As a new merchant, I often relied on Mike for insight into Barrington lifestyle and families, as well as business advice. In our first holiday season, I remember being overwhelmed with inventory and supplies, with little storage space for all that was arriving. In mentioning that conundrum to Mike one day, he quickly offered the extra space with an outside door located below the pharmacy. For the next few weeks as supplies and inventory boxes arrived, our stock boy would run those shipments downstairs to store them below the pharmacy.

As the selling season started in earnest, I recall staying after-hours one night to replenish shelves and supplies, which meant I had to take my first trip to the storage area. On that dark and cold December night, I took the key to the entry and walked around the Barrington Commons to the only door on the north side, which led to the staircase and storage area below. It occurred to me I should have toured the space at least once with Mike before this visit, if for no other reason than to locate the light switch. I felt my way up the wall until I came across the familiar industrial steel box and flipped it on. At which time I screamed like a little girl.

Mike, along with his pharmacy degree and certifications as a gemologist, was also a big-game hunter and museum-quality wildlife display expert. The basement was filled with finished trophies and displays of bear, hartebeest, elephant, antelope, and snake. They were hung from the ceiling, posed as if ready to lunge, and staged along the floor, something my stock boy had failed to mention. And just beyond the trophies, my neatly stacked supplies and merchandise.

We laugh about it now, but that night 40 years ago was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

David Rutter is a frequent contributer to Quintessential Barrington.

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Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share with you exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in the community. For more information about Quintessential People™, contact QB or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits by Thomas) at 847-381-7710 or www.portraitsbythomas.com