First-Generation Alumnus Gives Back

Supports Rutgers–Camden students with scholarships, art gallery with gifts

By Sam Starnes

John Miller CCAS’59 at an exhibition earlier this year in the Stedman Gallery, which showed several pieces he donated to the Rutgers–Camden Collection of Art.

The first of 10 children born to a truck driver and a stay-at-home mom, John Miller didn’t have any examples to follow on the path to higher education. “In my neighborhood, there wasn’t a single person who had gone to college,” said Miller, who grew up in Westmont, New Jersey.

Through the benefit of a state-funded scholarship, Miller became the first in his family to attend college when he started at Rutgers University–Camden in 1955. “It was a step into an opportunity that just opened up my life,” he said. “The environment was so stimulating in many ways.”

Miller, who studied French and psychology and earned a bachelor of arts in humanities in 1959, went on to earn a master’s in French and Spanish at the University of Maryland and a doctorate in modern languages at Middlebury College. He taught at several universities, including the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where he was a professor of Spanish and chair of the languages and cultures department. He received five Fulbright awards over his career to study worldwide, but his first international journey happened in 1959 as part of a Rutgers University trip to Argentina. “It was a life-changing event,” he said.

It was in 1961 when he developed another passion—collecting art. He bought his first piece, a small painting, on a trip to Barbados while fulfilling a Fulbright in Venezuela. “With my limited student budget, I began searching thrift shops,” he said. Travel and residency abroad in Turkey, Colombia, and Mexico led to new purchases, as did befriending artists where he taught. “Friends, other cultures, and the geography of memory mark my collecting,” Miller said.

Miller and Robert E. Bixler, his husband of 37 years, have given 16 works from their collection to the Stedman Gallery, including two that hung in the gallery’s Birthday Suit exhibition in early 2019: a large drawing by noted Colombian artist Luis Caballero, and a watercolor diptych by Ben Jones, a critically acclaimed New Jersey artist.

Miller and Bixler, who live in Cape Coral, Florida, have given generously to support education. Their gift of $160,000 funded the John C. Miller Endowed Scholarship for First-Generation Students in the Rutgers–Camden College of Arts and Sciences. They also established the Ladakhi Children’s Schooling Project, a nonprofit that has funded education for 100 children in India, Laos, Turkey, Cambodia, and South Africa. “What we did with most of our pension was, very simply, we invested it in international education,” he said. “This is our gift to the world, and it’s a key point to our existence.”

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