Donovan Miller, the 2011 winner of Hoosier Environmental Council’s award for Land Steward of the Year, passed away on Thursday, Feb. 2.
He was diagnosed last July with inoperable malignant pleural mesothelioma.
Over a decade ago, Miller took early retirement from his career as an administrator, turning his attention to his love of nature — as a gardener, landscaper and lover of the earth.
The Land Steward of the Year award recognized Miller for his various volunteer efforts throughout the city. Hoosier Environmental Council’s Tim Maloney presented the award, citing projects such as the one at the Indiana State Museum, “where he conceived of a multi-year restoration project to return the Turner Gardens to Indiana native prairie.”
Other projects spearheaded by Miller included being chief gardener and caretaker of the greenhouse at Cold Spring School, part of that school's environmental studies magnet program.
Said Maloney, “He has tended a tract of forest for Central Indiana Land Trust; takes student groups on rafting trips with Friends of the White River; done a lot of work to remove invasive species and led student tours at Marian University EcoLab. He has also spearheaded the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society's Letha's Youth Outdoors Fund, which helps school children experience nature in an educational context."
Donovan and I were neighbors for about a decade. I lived next to him during the period where he was still dressing up in a suit each day, driving to work, dreaming of a time when he could spend his days with his hands in the dirt.
Donovan was the best neighbor a person could have. Our two sons were born when we lived next door, which means they grew from babies to toddlers to rambunctious youngsters.
My sons’ occasional destructiveness extended to Donovan’s yard where on at least one occasion, his garden was damaged. There was also the period — unknown to me until much later — when my sons were ringing his doorbell, then running away.
Donovan tolerated it all with his gentle manner and a wry smile. He’d had two kids himself, so he knew parenting wasn’t simple.
One day in particular he knew how complex it could be.
Our youngest son, William, was about three years old when he decided to visit the corner candy store a good hundred yards away — on his own. We’d taken him there many times, and it didn’t occur to him he couldn’t go by himself, so he slipped out the door, unbeknownst to us, and headed to Friendly Foods.
I doubt he had any money with him — for all he knew Friendly Foods was that friendly. Hey, kid, just pick out your candy and go!
I don’t think William actually made it into the store that day. I do know that Donovan happened to be driving by at that very moment.
He told me later that when he saw William he thought to himself, “Whoa, that child is WAY too young to be out and about on his own.” His next thought, taking a closer look, was, “Whoa, I know that kid. It’s William!”
He proceeded to pick William up and take him to our home.
Imagining the alternatives to that scenario always makes me shudder. No matter what, it would have been a pretty bad day for William, and probably for the rest of us as well. Instead, my son was taken home, safe and sound.
Donovan was my hero that day, and remained so to the end.
When he learned of his diagnosis, he did something extraordinary.
He invited his friends over to his house to meet each other. Over the course of a couple gatherings, we did indeed meet each other — first a dozen of us, then two dozen, then more, gathering around a small fire in his backyard, swapping tales and singing, celebrating the life of Donovan right there in front of him.
We supposedly live in an age when people are sequestered in their individual homes, surrounded by entertainment systems; that their sense of community is merely Facebook-based.
I am here to tell you it’s not true. That I lived next door to a generous and loving man named Donovan Miller.
His life lives on in the ecosystems and communities he helped nourish into being.
A memorial service will be at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5, at First Mennonite Church, 4601 Knollton Road.