Editor’s note: The game of football is a big deal at the University of Michigan. Recent media interest in the departure of UM head coach Rich Rodriguez is proof of that. And as local history columnist Laura Bien illustrates this week, it’s been that way for at least a hundred years.
The teenager turned up on a Walla Walla fruit farm, his memory gone.
The cheers of the football crowds had faded away. The jokes and camaraderie of the frat brothers were forgotten. When James Joy Miller’s father traveled across the country in the spring of 1910 to claim his vanished son, his son did not recognize him.
A news story from Washington state, printed in the March 24, 1910 Ypsilanti Press, said “James G. Miller of Detroit, father of James Joy Miller, ex-Michigan football captain and star player of last season, arrived here but failed to be recognized by his son. The meeting was most affecting, and Miller senior was unable to account for the strange situation which has overtaken his son.”
Miller had been a ranch hand on a nearby fruit farm for two months, said the story, migrating there from Montreal after fleeing Michigan. “He has no recollection,” said the paper, “of his former surroundings, declares he has never seen a game of football and says he cannot remember what his father or his sweetheart look like, though his father sat before him.”
Perhaps the scandal had been too big a shock. It had broken in late December of 1909.
“Since the action of the board in control of athletics last Wednesday, in which they made public the disgrace that has come to Michigan through Joy Miller,” wrote the Dec. 29, 1910 Ypsilanti Daily Press, “there have been various stories published in the newspapers throughout the state in which sympathy has been expressed for Miller and in which it was made to appear that the students here at Michigan are deeply sympathetic with Miller. The people who have written these stories have taken a sort of absent treatment dose of dope; had they been here on the campus or any place in the town, they would not have written them.”
At first the students had been sympathetic to Miller, said the paper. Their initial sympathy was understandable – Miller had been the team’s star right end and quarterback. He’d been voted team captain by his colleagues at the end of the 1909 season.
Then it emerged that he wasn’t a UM student.
Miller hadn’t enrolled in the engineering classes he was supposed to be taking for the fall term of 1909. When the news hit the papers, Miller claimed that the Michigan officials he was supposed to meet with were unavailable over the holiday break. Campus sympathy for him faded.
The February 1910 issue of the Michigan Alumnus magazine delivered its verdict. “The final chapter in the case of James Joy Miller, as far as the University is concerned, came with the action of the Student Council, recommending his expulsion from the University, on Friday, Jan. 14, and his official expulsion by the Faculty of the Engineering Department, which followed the same day … The Council worked with very little interruption, all the week, examining witnesses, and reports, until the conclusion embodied in the following report, was reached and submitted to the Faculty.”
The magazine printed the resolution adopted by the faculty of the engineering department on Jan. 14, 1910:
WHEREAS, It has been proven that James Joy Miller, of Detroit, Michigan, a student registered in this Department, has signed and delivered to the Board in Control of Athletics of this University, a false statement as to his college standing; and,
WHEREAS, He has written misleading statements as to his college standing to the Assistant Dean of this Department; and
WHEREAS, He has willfully deceived the officers of this Department and the Board in Control of Athletics of the University; and,
WHEREAS, He has persistently neglected to respond to summons issued by the officers of this Department; and,
WHEREAS, He has in knowing violation of the rules in regard thereto, participated in athletic activities as a student in this University, and has thereby brought great criticism and discredit upon this University and this Department, be it therefore
Resolved, That the said James Joy Miller be, and he is hereby expelled from this Department and this University.
Miller’s election as team captain was revoked, as were his varsity UM sweater and varsity cap.
Miller vanished from campus, disappearing into rural Canada. And he eventually made his way to the Walla Walla fruit farm, where his father went to meet him.
The scandal died down over the years. In time Miller returned to his hometown Detroit. He got a job in a warehouse and took up residence at 219 Lawrence Ave. In late August of 1911, he married Edith Leonard in Detroit’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. His old fraternity, Theta Delta Chi, approvingly reported on his employment and marriage in its alum publication “The Shield.”
“Brother Miller was one of the greatest athletes ever turned out by Michigan,” reported the Oct. 10, 1911 issue of Theta Delta Chi’s “The Shield.” “As a football player he won national fame and [this fraternity] proudly claims him as one of her noted sons.”
Apparently all was forgiven.
By 1920 Miller and his wife Edith had moved to Highland Park. The couple were successful enough to have a named summer home on Grosse Isle: Hohncroft. The 1920 census lists Miller as a vice president of Wayne County’s “Storage Co.,” with a five-year-old son Henry and a four-year-old daughter Janet.
The 1930 census lists James Joy Miller as the head of a household in Grosse Ile Township, and the vice president of a warehouse. In addition to 16-year-old son Leonard Henry and 14-year old daughter Janet A., the household included the married couple of black servants Emory and Eithel [sic?] Craft.
The scandal was long behind James Joy Miller. The onetime uproar of a century ago, with its revocation of the varsity letter, the indignation of UM students, and Miller’s disappearance into Canada, had faded into history.
Several people correctly guessed that last week’s mysterious artifact from a turn-of-the-century Sears catalog was in fact a watch chain.
Now here’s this week’s challenge. This is an admittedly repro object that nonetheless fills out the author’s vintage letter-writing set of items. Yes indeedy, I write letters to friends with my steel-point nibs and Noodler’s ink. I’m hopelessly behind the times, but I was thrilled to find this doohickey in my stocking. But what is it? Take your best guess and see you in two weeks!
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an idea for a column? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.