Turning Tragedy Into Action
As a student, music was my passion which led me to become a touring professional, composer, teacher, and business person. However, what led me to my desire to create music was born out of tragedy. In 1972, my older brother was the victim of a gun homicide.
I remember the evening very distinctly when I was awakened by my father who was unraveling in front of my eyes saying the words, “Tom is dead.” A police officer had informed my family that Tom had been murdered. I was only 15 at the time and my brother only 20.
Tom was my friend and mentor. I would spend hours with him every day playing catch and engaging in our hobbies. We had the normal fights brothers have, but we also defended one another from the proverbial neighborhood bully. Most of our time was spent playing music together on our guitars.Tom taught me my first chords to Bob Dylan’s,“Hey Mr. Tambourine Man.” That is something I will always hold with me.
After Tom’s death, music seemed the only thing left that connected me with him. I would spend hours and hours playing, improvising, and composing. It was what got me through my grief. Later, I realized that formal study was the key to being proficient in music at a deeper level. It was then I began to get serious about music and began my studies. IU South Bend was the best path as I worked my way through college, and like many students today, I lived with my parents for the first few years.
At IU South Bend, through the help of great mentors, I found my calling in music and the liberal arts, which is the key to who I have become today. After graduating, I followed IU South Bend Alumnus Terry Graves, a recording artist with the DeFalla Guitar Trio, to California where I studied and received a Master in Music, and began performing and teaching professionally. Graves was the IU South Bend success story I wanted to follow.
After graduate school I came back to my parents’ home in Goshen as I prepared my curriculum vitae. Graves let me know that the University of Notre Dame was looking for a classical guitar instructor. Upon applying for the position I was hired immediately due to my experience, the graduate degree I obtained, and my IU South Bend training.
Shortly after I was hired I met Joellen. We were soon married, started a family, and opened acommunity guitar school.At what is now Millar Guitar Academy in Mishawaka, we began our first mission together. After 26 years we have taught thousands of students, many of whom have gone on to professional work in music. Some have dealt with personal tragedy similar to mine and were able to find solace, healing, and purpose through making music.
In 1994, another tragedy rocked our family as we found out two days before Christmas that my nephew had taken his own life with a gun at college. This is why I find it so important to make sure students have counseling available to them.*
In 2012, when 20 children and six teachers were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, Joellen and I decided to make gun violence prevention our second mission in life.
We joined Mayors Against Illegal Guns Survivor Network and became fellows with Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-partisan group that incorporates both Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action, a group that sprung up from the Facebook page of a Zionsville, Indiana mother in response to the Sandy Hook massacre. Everytown for Gun Safety now has over four million members, including hundreds of survivors like us that share our stories with community groups, the media, and elected officials in 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Today, Joellen and I lead a campaign to help Indiana municipal councils form gun safety resolutions that urge legislators to pass common sense gun laws, namely universal background checks,and stronger domestic violence gun laws. Beginning with the South Bend City Council, we supported a resolution that ultimately passed in 2017 and since, six additional cities in the state have passed gun safety resolutions.
My wife and I feel so privileged and blessed to enhance the lives of others with music and to work to help change our world so that others do not have to experience tragic losses like we did.
Written by Stephen Miller, BM’83