By Dave Ongie
Much like his former employer, Dr. Bob Miller has become something of an institution in the city of Kingsport.
Miller, a longtime resident of the Model City and a former chemist at Eastman Chemical Company, has received his share of awards and commendations for his citizenship. What’s more, nobody touts the virtues of Kingsport with more enthusiasm than Miller.
“I think Kingsport is a great place to live for many, many reasons,” he said, rattling off Bays Mountain Park and the Greenbelt as a couple of the city’s crown jewels. “Eastman and other businesses have brought well-educated people here, who, to a large extent, are willing to volunteer and help. They run for alderman, and I don’t know if they’re democrats or republicans. It never comes up.”
When you sit down and talk with Miller, it’s easy to forget he’s been alive longer than Eastman has been in Kingsport. Miller was born on Oct. 29, 1918 in the small town of Chester, South Carolina, two weeks before the end of World War I. Eastman didn’t come to town until 1920.
As one of six boys (“My mother very much wanted a daughter, but after six sons, she gave it up as a bad job,” Miller said with a chuckle), Miller took to science at an early age and set out to become a chemist. His parents paid his way through Erskine College in South Carolina, where he earned his undergrad degree.
Completing his academic journey required a scholarship, which Miller was eventually able to earn at the University of North Carolina. But on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States was drawn into World War II, and Miller suspended his graduate studies and eventually enlisted in the Navy.
Miller, who now resides at Asbury Place in Kingsport, describes his service during World War II as non-conventional. “I was in the Navy for three years and aboard a ship three hours as a guest,” he said.
His chemistry training was put to good use at the naval research laboratory in Washington, D.C., where he worked to solve problems that were plaguing Allied aircraft in combat. Miller was on a team that tried to find a solution to the problem of highly flammable hydraulic fluid being used in fighters and bombers.
“We were trying to come up with a non-flammable or a low-flammability hydraulic fluid,” Miller said. “We tried to build it around ethylene glycol and water. It has to lubricate properly and you have to learn about how flammable it would be. We finally realized it has a problem that couldn’t be solved – it froze at high altitude.”
Miller’s next project was more successful as his team developed a lubricant for jet engines that was eventually used throughout the aviation industry. His time in the military also paved the way for a successful marriage to the young lady he had been dating long-distance for six years.
“They had this quaint custom then,” Miller recalled. “You were supposed to be able to support a wife if you got married, and I was a student. But when I finally got my commission in the Navy, I thought I could support a wife, so we got married.
“I finally married her in 1943, and we got to celebrate our 75th wedding anniversary before I lost her a couple years ago.”
After completing his doctorate, Miller had his choice of jobs as chemists were in high demand after the war. He had never heard of Kingsport or Eastman, but made the decision to go to work for the company in 1948. It was the beginning of a rewarding career that lasted until Miller’s retirement in 1984.
Eastman has always been big, but Miller allows life was certainly different in the days before desktop computers and widespread automation.
“At one time when I was out there, the workforce got up to 16,000,” he said. “It’s down now because so much of the work is automated, but they’re producing far more goods.”
Miller does recall a computer at Eastman when he got there, but it was far different than the PCs we use today.
“They had a huge mainframe computer,” he recalled. “It was in a building and I think the walls were lined with copper. It had its own air conditioning system. Now virtually everyone out there has a computer. A Dell computer now can do as much or more than that big one did.”
An avid hiker, Miller still walks every day before breakfast, and with his 104th birthday approaching, he will gladly offer his keys to longevity.
“I always say lifestyle and picking the right parents,” Miller said with a laugh.