About Donald Miller, Founder
Donald Miller was the founder and long-time CEO of Classic Products, Inc., which was later renamed Isaiah Industries. Born on April 8, 1936, Don passed away on June 25, 2014, due to complications related to diabetes. He is remembered for instilling into everyone around him the values of quality, hard work, and the inherent worth of individuals as God’s children. You can learn more about Donald Miller’s life and legacy, as written by his son and current company president, Todd Miller…
Too young to be a part of the Greatest Generation yet too old to be a Baby Boomer, dad’s age puts him within what sociologists call the “Silent Generation.” These are the folks who went quietly but industriously about the work of growing our nation after World War II. They were focused on leading our country into a new age of industrialization and world leadership. While perhaps not as much is said about the Silent Generation as the Greatest Generation or the Baby Boomers, these folks to a large degree shaped our nation and world to be what they are today.
Dad’s life was very much a part of the development created by his generation, particularly as he made the shift from the family farm to the rapidly growing world of manufacturing. To some degree, even though he made the shift from the farm to manufacturing, dad still had a big heart for farming and would often tell stories of what it had been like to farm when he was younger. Sometimes we heard the same story again and again but at least he was consistent; the stories never changed.
He was a part of his family’s farming and share cropping life from a very early age. When his mother was widowed, dad played a major role in keeping the farm going and supporting his family. I remember him talking of being scared to death when his dad made him climb up into the top part of their barn to fix a pulley that had broken. But, as one of dad’s frequent sayings went, a man has to do what a man has to do. Another of his favorite stories relayed a time when they chained two tractors together in order to pull their corn picker through a muddy field.
My parents met at the county fair one year when they were both in the all county band. When the trumpet player and the clarinetist met, apparently some very sweet music was made. However, there was an early fear that it was to be short lived. There was a time during their courtship when Dad was calling on mom at her family home in Lafayette. As they sat together in the living room, suddenly my grandmother burst out of the kitchen, chasing a doomed moth that had flown into their house, all the while screaming “Kill that Miller!” Well, once it was established that “Miller” was a reference to the particular type of moth and not to my father, things calmed down. I suspect though that this quiet young man on an early date was a bit concerned for awhile. And, I will say, dad loved his mother-in-law very much and worked hard later in her life to encourage her to keep her diabetes under control which was unfortunately what eventually wrecked his own health as well.
Dad attended Ohio Northern University for two years, pursuing a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Again, this marked that shift from the family farm into industry. He was fortunate in his early career to get exposure to a wide variety of industries including trailers, tool and die design, machining, refrigeration equipment, packaging and containers, and building materials. He also constantly showed an entrepreneurial spirit which would capture him for the rest of his life in 1980 at the age of 44 with the formation of Classic Products, Inc., now Isaiah Industries.
Everyone who knew dad had great respect for his knack for mechanical things. He was able to put together designs for more effective equipment and tooling and also to identify problems with existing equipment. During his career, he was involved in numerous noteworthy engineering and development projects in the packaging and building materials industries. Allow me to mention a few projects he worked on in his career.
One of the projects was designing and building specialty pressurized frying equipment for Lee Cummings and Harold Omer in Lima, Ohio in the mid 1960s. Lee was the nephew of the famous Colonel Sanders and their restaurant chain, utilizing equipment dad helped design and build, became Lee’s Famous Recipe Fried Chicken. About the same time, he was involved with a project for General Foods developing the equipment that wrapped cellophane around their famous Gaines Burger dog food patties.
Working later for Stolle Corporation, a major project for dad involved the development of the initial high speed stamping equipment used for producing two-piece aluminum beverage cans. That equipment truly revolutionized the beverage packaging industry. Later on with the start of Classic Products, dad was involved with manufacturing roofing materials for hundreds of Pizza Huts across the globe.
So, the next time you eat a Gaines burger, a Lee’s Chicken leg, or a Pizza Hut pizza, or open up an aluminum beverage can, you can think of dad. In his career, he was also voted to be one of the inaugural members of the Metal Roofing Hall of Fame.
Growing up, I remember that dad could fix anything. It was unheard of to hire someone to repair the car or a household appliance because dad would take care of it. I remember marveling as I looked into the back of our television set at all of the glowing glass tubes and dad was able to figure out which one was causing the black and white screen to keep flipping with those horizontal lines. And, though I still don’t know how he did it, he almost single handedly built our family’s first home here in Sidney, all the time while working full time and commuting from the house we rented from my grandparents 40 miles away.
One thing that was always clear about dad was his exacting approach to any of the work he did. While many of us will eyeball things and say “well, that’s close enough for horse shoes or hand grenades,” dad simply could not operate that way. Everything had to be precise and carefully measured. And it showed in his approach and the outcome of his work. Sometimes this could come across as being pretty demanding to those who worked with him but, really, it was because he cared passionately about quality. He was a smart and capable man and he liked to control the situation. When asked early on during his time at Dorothy Love whether he ever went on any of the bus trips with other residents, he said “I told them that if I couldn’t drive the bus, I wasn’t going.” That was dad’s story.
When working with mechanical things, he was incredible. Even in his later years after a stroke had made it hard for him to get around as well as he would have liked, if we had a piece of equipment at work that was giving us fits, you could usually rely on dad to be able to drive up alongside the machine on the golf cart he used to get around the plant, sit there and watch and listen for a couple of minutes, and then give what was usually spot-on advice as far as what was going wrong and needed to be looked at. He always swore by listening and watching carefully to determine what was wrong with mechanical things.
Speaking of the golf cart, my apologies to those at work whom he would occasionally accidentally sort of kind of run into with it. His depth perception wasn’t so good after his stroke. Thank you for your grace, kindness, and understanding. So, Um, sorry Elmer … and undoubtedly others.
Those of us who had the privilege of working with dad learned much from him even beyond the importance of measuring five or six times and cutting once. One of his sayings which has stuck with me was “There’s no such thing as holding your own in life or business. If you think you’re holding your own, you’re really declining because you can bet that others are going around you.” That has instilled in all of us a constant ambition toward growth and continual improvement, long before “continual improvement” became the buzz word that it is today.
Another saying of his was “It is, what it is.” By that he meant that there’s no point in looking back and trying to change history. It is what it is and all we can do is work for the future, from where we are. Even in some of our most difficult times as a business, he kept us looking forward and focused on growth.
Dad also liked saying “dollars to donuts.” I really still don’t have a clue what that meant even though, scarily, I find myself now repeating it on occasion.
But above all, dad showed us the importance, value, and equal worth of all of us as God’s children. As is told in the 12th chapter of Mark:
29 Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. 30 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’[g] 31 The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[h] No other commandment is greater than these.”
32 The teacher of religious law replied, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth by saying that there is only one God and no other. 33 And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.”
34 Realizing how much the man understood, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And after that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Dad lived out this admonition to love others through his hiring practices. He believed that everyone deserved a second chance and he loved the opportunities when he could work with team members who had been written off by past employers. Dad believed not in looking at a person in terms of where they had been but in terms of where they are and where they’re going. There’s nothing more Jesus-like in human relationships than that approach. Dad was also that way with our suppliers. While other companies strive to increase their bottom lines by beating up their suppliers, dad continually stressed to us the importance of mutually beneficial relationships with suppliers. If the relationship did not work as well for the supplier as it did for us, then you could bet it would not last long and would not be a successful relationship.
Looking back on my childhood, I remember a lot of time spent in the car with dad. Whether it was one of the many family trips we took which allowed us to see the country from coast to coast or just a Sunday afternoon drive in the country to Plainview Dairy for ice cream, we spent a lot of time in the car. Dad always liked his cars though. I thought about trying to put together how his cars mirrored the different segments of his life but the rusted out 1964 AMC Rambler proved to be too great of a challenge to explain so I just gave up on that whole idea.
One thing I can remember about dad though is that his family’s comfort always came before his own. Like pretty much everyone else at the time it seemed, we really didn’t have much “stuff’ when I was growing up. But yet dad would always take care of his family and provide us with the best he could, never thinking about his own comfort. I really only remember him splurging on himself one time and that was with his 1984 Corvette. Wow, as a college kid at the time, I loved that car and dad was very generous in allowing me to drive it. One of my best memories of that car though was when he took it to show his mom who was then in her mid 80s and she wanted him to take the roof off so she could try to stand up while he was driving. I can easily see her yelling “Iceberg, straight ahead!” had he let her do that. (This is the woman who, mind you, once wrote down a cookie recipe when she was listening in on a party line phone conversation. I have the recipe if you’d like it.)
You know, dad’s belief in the value of individuals came back to benefit him in his later years. One of my favorite sayings is that “If you expect the best of someone, that is exactly what you’ll get.” As he struggled with his health, dad who was always the one previously to help others, found himself increasingly relying on the kindness of others.
After his first stroke, we bought a house up on Grand Lake in Celina so that mom and dad would have a place to get away to without having to travel far. Having a house on a lake prompted dad to think he should start fishing. So, he bought all the gear … and the boat.
Boating was a new thing for him though. He was once trying to put the boat in the water when, instead of disconnecting the boat from the trailer, he disconnected the trailer from the truck so, as he drove away, the boat, with the trailer attached, began to float away. Well, actually, it didn’t really float. It turns out that boats with trailers still attached actually sink. So he had to rely on the kindness of someone who came and helped him out of that predicament.
And then there was another time when I noticed that the no wake zone buoy off of our seawall at the house was suddenly broken in half and really quite a mess. I couldn’t imagine how in the world that had happened until I heard the story that dad had gotten the prop on his boat tied up in the chain on the buoy and, again, he had to be rescued by someone. Um, by the way, if anyone from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is here today, I will be happy to write you a check for one badly broken buoy. His fishing attempts were pretty short lived, though. As dad would often say, he was made to work. Somehow fishing didn’t jibe with what he saw himself as being on this planet to do.
Dad was rightfully proud of the folks he worked with, and our customers. Even the last couple of years, whenever I’d see him, he would ask me about how work was going and ask me how different people were doing. He saw great value in being able to provide stable, gainful employment to others. Economic development through the success of small businesses was very important to dad.
And dad always enjoyed connecting with and keeping up with the children of his co-workers. Several people have told me in recent days how good he was at taking their kids off to show them various things around the yard or plant. And, of course, he dearly loved his own grandson, Evan, and talked about him frequently.
Dad lived out Matthew 25:45 in very real ways. That is where Jesus says, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’ There are stories of dad stopping and helping people in need and he always paid particularly caring attention to team members at work who might be going through difficult times. Lisa, my wife, remembers how he would stop by her work during the late afternoons on snowy days and clean the snow off of her car. That was certainly nice of him but it sure made me look bad.
He loved his family and worked hard for them. Lisa and Mom, dad would ask about you both every time we saw him the last couple of years. He very much cared about your comfort and happiness. My wife Lisa and Evan, he was so proud of both of you and loved you much. Evan, it may seem like he’s not here to watch you as you go into adulthood but, trust me, he is, the same as your grandma Sara is.
May we all be inspired by dad’s life. Inspired to care enough to be passionate. Inspired to see all of us as equals. Inspired to love others and see their worth as children of God. And, may we keep looking ahead, remembering that it is what it is … we work and grow and live from where we are, not from where we once were. The last couple of years as he was bed ridden and in need of constant care, Dad still maintained a good attitude and always looked forward to the future. Dad knew and accepted the fact that, in His infinite grace and wisdom, God places us in different seasons of our lives, lovingly and with great care and purpose. May we all go forward with that grace and acceptance as a part of our lives.
So, at that, let me leave you with the following.
It is a time to prepare,
A time to live with wild abandon
And surrender to God’s call.
We are here to do good and do no harm.
To build up and not tear down.
To love and never hate.
To give rather than take.
And to serve without being served.
When we’re tired and weary
From giving more than we have received,
May our sweet heavenly home’s calling come
And may “Well done my good and faithful servant”
Be the words we hear;
Fulfillment of a life well lived.
So we say goodbye to husband, father, grandpa, co-worker, friend, and relative – a good and faithful servant, wishing him rest and peace and looking forward to seeing him again.