Robert “Bobby” Miller, a longtime Burlington developer and philanthropist, died Tuesday from a heart attack. He was 84 years old.
Miller was remembered as a generous, intelligent, and down-to-earth man, and was what Mayor Miro Weinberger called “one of the pillars of our business, civic, and philanthropic communities.”
Over the course of his life, Miller became one of Vermont’s most prominent philanthropists, donating many millions to nonprofits across the state — though for much of his youth, Miller was actually quite poor.
Miller was born in Rutland to a working-class family. But with just one arm, and only a high school education, Miller managed to get hired in his 20s as an auto mechanic.
“He came up the long, hard way,” said Ernie Pomerleau, a Burlington real estate developer and longtime friend of Miller.
A few years later, with no experience, Miller got a job as a draftsman for an engineering firm. Eventually, he took what he learned along the way and started his own company, New England Air Systems, in 1972 — which he sold to his employees just 12 years later.
A Vermonter through-and-through, Miller spent almost his entire life in the state. One of his closest friends, Richard Tarrant, the founder of IDX Systems Corp., said he actually couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t know Bobby Miller.
But nearly everything else about Miller, Tarrant said, was hard to forget.
“Bobby was disarmingly smart, disarmingly capable. I mean absolutely egoless,” Tarrant said. “He is so sincere about everything he does, and so capable. Everything he touches is successful.”
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Tarrant said Miller worked every project down to its bones, refusing to give up on anything that he decided to start.
“He was just a hard worker who happened to be smarter than hell, too,” Tarrant said.
In 1984, Miller launched the company where he made millions, REM Development, a commercial leasing and development firm. He spent decades at the company’s helm, developing projects in nearly every corner of Vermont.
“He did stuff all over Vermont. I mean, his fingerprints are everywhere” Pomerleau said. “I don’t think you can possibly quantify something that big.”
And almost all the money he made along the way, he and his wife Holly donated to a variety of causes, including the University of Vermont Medical Center, for a palliative care program and a 128-room addition, the Flynn Center for Performing Arts, Champlain College, the Visiting Nurse Association, and the VNA Respite House — with their donations totaling in the multi millions.
Almost as famous as the couple’s philanthropy was their 34-year marriage.
“When he and Holly got together, they became a single force that changed so many people’s lives,” Pomerleau said. “That’s when one and one makes three.”
Lauren Curry, executive director of the Richard and Deborah Tarrant Foundation, said the difference the couple made for the state was “incredible.”
“And they always seemed to be awfully smiley as they did it,” she said.
Tarrant said one of his favorite memories of Miller was a small moment at a party Miller was hosting. He said there were a few seconds where he just looked around at everyone who was there and realized that it was the perfect encapsulation of who Miller was.
“It wasn’t what you’d expect of someone of his status,” Tarrant said. “They were the nicest people, the most down-to-earth people. Something about the people at that party said all I need to say about Bobby Miller.”
Mayor Miro Weinberger issued a statement Wednesday lauding Miller’s life.
“Bobby was a hard and diligent worker, and when you needed to reach him, you knew you could find him at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Williston Road at 5:00 am,” Weinberger wrote. “I know that Bobby’s incredible personal story, dedication to his community, and ceaseless generosity will continue to inspire many.”
Melinda Moulton, who worked with Miler over the years in her role as CEO of Main Street Landing, said the death of Miller is sad not only in its own right, but also because of the loss it represents of Miller’s entire generation.
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“I’m sure there’s going to be a generation behind this generation,” Moulton said, “but these are the Burlingtonians who helped to grow this city and support the changes that made this one of the greatest cities in the country.”
To that end, Pomerleau noted that the one thing he’ll never forget about Bobby Miller is the time they were working to raise money for a VNA endowment. The project needed a $1 million donation, and Miller, without having the cash on hand, decided to borrow the money — just to see the project through to completion.
“I was like ‘you’re borrowing money just to give away a million dollars?’” Pomerleau said. “But of course he was, he was Bobby Miller. Those were the moments where I just said, you know, this guy’s OK.”