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Column: Author completes biography of ex-Cummins leader

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Charlie Rentschler has spent a considerable portion of the past three years in the company of the late J. Irwin Miller.

The relationship has been entirely in words — those of Miller and scores of others who played a variety of roles in his 95 years of life. They will be part of a biography that Rentschler completed earlier this month and hopes to have in book form before the end of the year.

Ironically, the subject matter of the volume died 10 years ago this week, Aug. 16, 2004. His last days were spent in the iconic Columbus home he shared with his wife, Xenia, an abode now visited by thousands of tourists each year.

The visitors come for a variety of reasons, to take in the architectural vision of the renowned Eero Saarinen or to witness the splendid landscaping of Dan Kiley. But many come to see where lived a man who left a lasting imprint on the theology, business and government of the United States. They also come to experience the community that he transformed and where he lived his entire life.

The Columbus of 2014 and the company Miller headed for so much of its existence, Cummins Inc., are distinctly different from what they were a decade ago, but his legacy is arguably as strong as ever.

In that 10-year interval, thousands of people have moved into Columbus who never knew what the city was like when he was alive. The downtown, which he long hoped to see restored as the hub of community life, has experienced a significant revitalization. The company, in which he and other family members staked more than 50 percent of their personal wealth to save it from being torn apart by outside investors, is flourishing.

And although Miller did not live to see firsthand what has happened over the past decade, Rentschler firmly believes he deserves a great share of the credit. It was an attitude Rentschler developed over several years, many of which have been spent in Columbus, most recently as a financial analyst. Previously he had worked for approximately 10 years at Cummins.

He and his wife, Suzie, had come to know the Millers through a variety of connections. The two women had served on the Indiana Arts Commission.

“We were guests in their home and vice versa on a couple of occasions, but I wouldn’t say that we were close friends,” he recalled last week. “I really came to know him through the research I’ve done for this biography.”

That research began in the fall of 2011, shortly after he learned that the papers of the Millers and other family members had been donated to the Indiana Historical Society, which agreed to archive and digitize the materials.

“I just thought it offered a marvelous opportunity to chronicle the life of someone who has had such an influence on so many things,” he said. “It also was a means to learn so much more about someone who affected our community.”

It was a formidable task, not made any easier by the fact that Rentschler had never before attempted anything like a biography. Then there was the task of delving through all the materials.

“Just going through the papers was a significant undertaking,” he said. “There were 540 boxes for him alone, and each of those boxes had eight to 10 folders. It took me 85 days just to do that.”

The collection was not a total history of the man. “There weren’t any family papers, nor was there any correspondence relating to meetings of the Cummins Board of Directors,” he said.

Rentschler’s research at the state historical society was augmented by scores of interviews with people who were close to the Millers.

“I talked to his son, Will, seven or eight times, mostly during visits to his New York office,” he said. “I also had a number of conversations with business associates like (former Cummins Chairman) Jim Henderson and (former U.S. Rep.) Lee Hamilton.”

Out of the research and interviews emerged a picture of a deeply religious man who had an abiding love for the engine company he headed for several decades in the mid-20th century and the community in which it was headquartered.

Although he was aware of Miller’s deep commitments on social and ethical issues before he began his task, Rentschler developed an even greater appreciation through his research.

“He was so caring about other people,” he said. “He was really ahead of his time on national issues like civil rights and global developments, such as the Chinese government’s reaction to Tiananmen Square and apartheid in South Africa.”

Those moral stances sometimes came at a temporary cost for both him and Cummins, but Rentschler says that he never wavered. “He was still tackling issues late in life, as when he backed (then Cummins Chairman) Tim Solso in 1999 when the company offered benefits to same-sex couples.”

Rentschler is still amazed at the extent of Miller’s dedication to the engine company. “Consider that he put 62 percent of his net worth on the line in backing the company when it was threatened by a hostile takeover by a British firm.”

Personal characteristics are woven throughout Rentschler’s biography, such as Miller’s feelings about a ruptured-but-later-mended relationship with the engine company’s co-founder, Clessie Cummins.

The two had been close friends through the early development of the company, but differences about financial entitlements to the man whose name is still associated with the business resulted in a parting of the ways. “After studying the materials, I really believe that he (Miller) regretted the way that Clessie had been treated.”

Miller’s roles on the national stage brought him recognition exemplified by the Esquire magazine cover article that proclaimed, “This Man Should be President,” and invitations to speak around the country.

“He made hundreds of speeches, and he wrote them himself,” Rentschler said. “Will Miller told me that he would spend a week preparing each speech, writing them out by hand. Public speaking did not come easy for him. In fact, Lee Hamilton told me that he was a poor speaker and probably couldn’t have been elected president had he made the effort, but it says something that he went ahead with those speeches even though it was difficult for him.”

Although memories will fade, Rentschler said he believes Miller’s legacy will be lasting.

“I came across one of his speeches in which he urged his audience to be builders of cathedrals,” he said. “The point was that the process might be long and that the builders might not live to see the results, but the final results will be treasured for a long time to come.”

A decade after his death, J. Irwin Miller’s legacy is still being treasured.

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