We are all, I suppose, a product of our experiences. So to explain about our foundation and my beliefs that have shaped it, a bit of my history would be helpful.
I had a great childhood. My Dad, a great guy, was making what today would be called a middle class income. We lived in an apartment building in a good neighborhood. And in those days we were allowed to be pretty independent, roaming the neighborhood on our bikes, playing in the park, etc., just so we were home in time for dinner and then for bedtime. During my early teen days, I had a series of jobs including being a soda jerk at a drugstore, delivering dry cleaning, ushering at a theatre downtown, setting pins in a bowling alley (this was before pins setting machines) and more. During the summer that I was 15 or 16 years old, I drove a truck for a food wholesaler. Not that I had to work, but it was just something that I wanted to do.
I was in high school during the war (“the war” meaning the 2nd world war). The papers were filled with the news. Walter Winchell kept everyone glued to the radio on Sunday afternoon.
The newsreels at the movies on Saturdays showed it in graphic action. Rationing affected almost everything. Dad was allowed 3 gallons of gas a week. We all saved tin foil, creating big balls of it to turn in for the war effort. Patriotism was in the air. You absorbed it through your pores.
It wasn’t until a number of years later that we learned that Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew what was happening to the Jews in Europe and did nothing to try to stop it, even turning away a ship filled with over 900 Jews who eventually had to return to Europe and were killed.
Before the war, I remember going on a family vacation in Michigan or Wisconsin and there were signs on resorts that read, “No Jews or dogs allowed.” Most Universities at the time had quotas of 5% for Jews. Today, none of that exists, which shows how far we have come in realizing that wonderful vision in our Declaration of Independence that, “All men are created equal and are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In our last year of high school several of my friends and I asked our high school English teacher to teach us college level English in a free period. We asked a math teacher, a very tough teacher, to teach us college algebra even though our math requirement had already been fulfilled.
When we graduated and applied to college, the University of Illinois at Champaign, we took tests and proficiencies out of both those freshman level subjects and received 6 credit hours. My best friend and I decided that with 6 hours to start with, we could finish school in 3½ years by carrying extra loads each year, which we did.
While I was in high school, my Dad had some financial reverses and so when I was ready to go to college, and my brother was in his senior year, my Dad would be hard pressed to support both of us. So, I worked during school, modeling for the art class, washing dishes and in the summers, loading freight cars and digging ditches, whatever paid the most. I paid for my entire 4 years at school and graduated with no debt.
And then in 1948, Israel fought for its independence and won. What a proud moment that was for all of us. Then in 1967, there was the six day war involving Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. A call went out for donations and though my new business was barely providing a living, I donated $1,000, a sum I couldn’t really afford.
But to backtrack a bit, after college, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I worked for a few months for my Dad in his chicken store and then for my brother in his store and then for an uncle who had a food manufacturing company. I spent 5 years on the road, constantly travelling throughout a good part of the United States. In the 4th year I married and decided that being married and on the road most of the time was not a good idea. So I left my uncle’s business and went with a company to handle their mail order briefcase business and I called on companies in Chicago to sell them cases for their sales forces. But the owner sold the company after my being there for just 1 year and I left.
What to do? I decided to go into business for myself, and since I had a few accounts who bought briefcases from me, I asked myself what else they bought. Office supplies. So, with that I decided to go into the office supply business. My strategic plan was to put a phone in Dad’s chicken store so he could answer it when I was out selling and to go out and cold canvas businesses. My supplier was a wholesaler who agreed to sell to me. Not exactly a Harvard case study or strategic plan approach. But it worked.
That was June, 1956. My brother, Harvey, joined me about a year and a half later and my brother Arnold about 25 years later. From Dad’s chicken store, we set up offices in Uncle Herb’s unused coal bin and then to a small space of our own. By the time we sold to Staples in 1998, we had a headquarters location with a 210,000 square foot warehouse and 150,000 square feet of office space in Lincolnshire, Illinois, plus nine distribution centers around the country and over 1200 people.
So those are the kinds of experiences that have shaped my feelings and my beliefs and have helped to shape our foundation. I have a deep belief in the uniqueness and goodness of America and its founding principles that allow someone to become the best they are capable of being. I have a strong identity with the Jewish people and Jewish values.
And, finally, I believe that almost everyone, if they truly want to and if they work hard enough, can achieve some level of success. I am not sympathetic to those who don’t try.
So, how did I get into philanthropy to the extent that I have?
Well, I have always felt that I should give back. It is sort of like paying a debt for all that was here because of what others have done before me. In the beginning, it was just a matter of writing checks for various causes. Not big checks. Then at some point, my late wife, Audrey, and my daughters and their husbands and I would sit around the kitchen table once a year and go through all the requests we had received that year and decide who we should give to.
Then, we started a foundation and got a little more formal with what we were doing but it was still somewhat loose. But the giving did become more substantial. Also, our company, Quill Corporation, had a foundation and we were putting in a certain percent of the profit each year and Harvey, Arnold and I decided where that money would go.
When we sold the company, suddenly there was a lot of money available and so giving became a more serious matter. At one point, because I had developed peripheral neuropathy, a painful nerve condition in the feet, I funded a major research institute with a multi-million dollar gift to endow a chair, equip laboratories and to try to find a cure. Unfortunately, within just a few years they began studying something else. I learned an important, and expensive, lesson in giving from that experience. Never give a lump sum. Always have a tight legal agreement and only continue funding if they meet your requirements.
It was about this time that we began to get into “strategic philanthropy,” and today the bulk of our dollars go to strategic initiatives.
Because I believe in this great country of ours and because our young people are not learning about it in school, I started the Jack Miller Center for the Teaching of America’s Founding Principles and History (www.gojmc.org), which is now a public foundation. We are having great success on college campuses across the country and have even started an academy for high school teachers.
We also support other organizations that we believe work toward helping realize the American vision as expressed in our Declaration of Independence and the principles in our constitution.
Still suffering from Peripheral Neuropathy, I started the Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy www.ffpn.org. which is also now a public foundation and is doing well.
And, of course, Jewish causes and Israel advocacy are high on our lists. The Jewish population of between 15 and 16 million world wide represents less than ¼ of 1% of the world’s population. I am devoted to it and to its survival. Our contribution to the world far exceeds our size and we deserve to live and to thrive.
My wife, Goldie, began another strategic initiative, a program to help women achieve leadership roles in real estate. It’s the Goldie B. Wolfe Miller Women Leaders in Real Estate Initiative in the real estate school at Roosevelt University in Chicago (www.womenleadersinrealestate.com). It too is very successful.
Under the leadership of Goldie and my daughter Judith, we also support a number of community causes, from art to zoos and much in between.
And today, our foundation is run very much like a business. We have a Director and a Program Officer. They are the CEO and the COO of the foundation. They carefully investigate any organization we are considering for a gift and are always looking for new organizations that will help us achieve our goals. Before any gift of significance is given, there is a binding contract that is signed and then they follow up to make sure that our gift is being used as intended. Donor’s intent is very important to us.
Our goal is to primarily use our money carefully for causes we believe in and to support, to a lesser extent, the community we live in, all based on the beliefs I have expressed.
– JACK MILLER