Professor, Model Railroader: Remembering Bob Miller’s Life of Skill

Some Memories of Admirable Effort

Episodes of a Skillful Life: Memories of Robert “Bob” Miller

Longtime Urbana citizen Professor Robert “Bob” Miller passed away in the summer of 2019, the end of a life that this modest man went through skillfully, aiding the journey through life of many as an exceptionally well-regarded teacher by his students in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics while also practicing the arts and crafts he learned in his youth. Trained as an aerospace engineer, Bob became know as “Rapid Robert” for his quick mastery of the mathematics of complex structural systems. He taught at the University of Illinois for more than four decades until retirement in 1994.

I got to know Bob, all too briefly, when he came to operate on my Denver & Rio Grande Western Four Corners Division at the monthly meetings of the Illinois Terminal Division. The ITD is part of the Midwest Region of the National Model Railroad Association, of which Bob was a member for decades, starting in 1961. My layout operates on DCC, so he inquired if he brought one of his Shays over whether it would be able to run here. Since I use NCE, unlike the Digitrax that most people around the area use which does support DC operation, I could not immediately manage that since it does not support operating DC locos.

However, I’ve always been fascinated by Shays and my recently completed Cascade Extension could accommodate Bob’s request if I converted it to put a dead section between the rest of the layout so that we could then apply DC power. This let him operate through to the end of the branch, letting his Shay run on DC from Crater Lake Junction through Crater Lake and on to Snowden. The next time we met at my place (we meet round-robin style at member’s homes) Bob brought his Loon Lake Line #2 Shay.

Bob Miller’s Loon Lake Line #2 switching the Merry Widow Mine

Bob enjoyed switching with #2, running up to the Merry Widow Mine, as well as serving several other industries. It was one of the last times I saw Bob, then I learned he’d passed away. I was sad, because there aren’t too many narrowgauge enthusiasts around.

Only after being offered a chance to acquire some of Bob’s estate, only part of which I could afford (he had a number of nice Shays, mostly NIB beyond my means) and then receiving a enormous donation to ITD of numerous modules with most exquisitely handlaid track in a variety of scales and gauges, plus track and other materials, along with a fleet of wonderful scratchbuilt HO and HOn3 rolling stock plus some TT cars! I was astounded by the depth of Bob’s narrowgauge roots as well as the generosity of his family in trusting us to find the value in his life’s work in the hobby. This made me even sadder to have known Bob for such a short time, but his legacy is one the ITD will preserve, a happy result that will likely inspire, we hope, other young model railroaders by the examples he set in the hobby and more generally in life itself.

Thus the explanation for the display that is the first pic in this article. I made a memorial display to hold various items that let me know Bob a little better that stood out among the many items that came into our hands at ITD from the estate. They’re also things that may give insight and inspiration through Bob’s good works. It’s worth noting that Bob’s life, personal and professional, is something I learned much more about through the graces of his friend and colleague, James W. Phillips, who shared an inspring biography of Bob with me that Jim wrote.

Let’s look inside the box, which is in a preliminary state of organization, as I’ve already received several more insights from among his friends .

Bob Miller Memorial Detail 1

Observing from left to right, Bob’s professional life is remembered, including his earning the prestigious Everitt Award in 1976, given for teaching excellence of undergraduates in the University of Illinois College of Engineering, but also one that depends on being nominated by students. The large pieces of balsa are models of propeller cross sections that are mathematically described as the relationship between two axis lines defined on the models by steel rods that can be seen embedded in the balsa. From that esoteric point, the exhibit moves on clockwise to one of the hand-built throttles that Bob made and used that utilized transistors, an invention made with the help of another faculty member, two-time Nobel Prize winner John Bardeen. These utilized the ever-classy and nearly bulletproof Cinch-Jones plugs, plus some rather more common parts from Radio Shack and other local sources. Then there is a HO scale street lamp made by Bob from such simple things as button covers. Finally, there are some receipts and a business card documenting Bob’s vendors of model railroad supplies, only one of which I am aware is still with us.

Bob Miller Memorial Detail 2

In the center section, there’s a nice brightly colored pic of Bob among his dozens of hand-made gliders, where he applied some of the principles of his training in the aeronautical sciences here at the University of Illinois. Specifically, they are canard design gliders, which makes them appear like they are flying backwards since some of the tail surfaces usually seen in the rear of most aircraft are instead at the front of these model aircraft, Bob was a member of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a national organizations for those who build and fly model aircraft.

To the right is a sets of notes tracking the incredible mileages Bob put on his bicycle so he could predict when he needed new tires. A pic of Bob near Lake of the Woods showed how Bob ranged far and wide, but I’m told he always wore his helmet. Beneath the biking pic is a wiring plan for an N scale module, showing the complicated system of feeders and gaps as applied to the design of trackwork required to operate without shorting the power, Model railroading at it’s purest, doubly so because Bob hand laid his track with impeccably beautiful curves.

Bob’s HOn3 Loon Lake module, under restoration for public display

The freight cars near the front of the display case are not HOn3, like those that he ran on the module pictured above. They are TT (1:120) standard gauge (12 mm), a rather obscure scale in the US, although it was more popular in Europe, before N scale. The cars, as well as the TT scale structures in the mid-front of the case are most likely ones he built in the 1960s, perhaps earlier. Given the small envelope-sized collection of catalogs offering supplies and rolling stock kits found among his papers, Bob retained an interest in TT even as it virtually faded away in the Western Hemisphere.

Hard to see laying atop the sketch diagram for a N scale layout is a soldered-up set of points and the frog for a turnout. It is easier to imagine how this looks by using a pic of some of the many jigs he left for us designed to build turnout components to a defined geometry. The results can be seen in the gently flowing trackwork on the Loon Lake module above. Next Up: What these rather prosaic jigs looked like.