Burnett Miller survived shrapnel wounds at the Battle of the Bulge, helped liberate a concentration camp — and recounted his war stories for an acclaimed PBS documentary. After returning home to Sacramento, he spent his business career running a millwork and cabinetry company founded by his ancestors shortly after the Gold Rush.
He helped save historic Old Sacramento buildings from the wrecking ball, and was founding member of an annual conference at Lake Tahoe that mentors aspiring poets and writers. He rode camels in Iran and, until recently, played tennis with one of America’s most celebrated painters.
Oh, and he served as Sacramento’s mayor for about a year.
A lifelong Sacramentan, community leader and philanthropist with a multitude of interests and causes, Miller died late Sunday, surrounded by family members in his living room. He was 95.
“He loved life and lived it to its fullest,” said his friend and onetime political rival Phil Angelides, the former state treasurer. “He was as close to a Renaissance man as we’ve had in the Sacramento region.”
Miller had survived a bout with pneumonia and was briefly hospitalized last week, said his son Powell Miller. Yet he was playing tennis regularly at the Sutter Lawn club until recently — his partner was legendary Sacramento artist Wayne Thiebaud — and last Thursday he managed to appear at an inaugural awards ceremony named for him that honored the family’s lumber company and other well-known Sacramento businesses.
“He told his family there was no way he wasn’t going to come” to the ceremony, said City Historian Marcia Eymann, who worked with Miller on numerous historical projects. The ceremony was held at the Sierra 2 community center in Curtis Park, and Miller was able to speak briefly at the event.
“He was a gentleman, he was a scholar, he was a leader, he deeply cared for his community,” she said. “He cared for the arts and he was devoted to history, and how important it was to the community.”
Eymann said Miller helped establish a trust to buy, preserve and restore historic buildings in Old Sacramento decades ago. He was also a major contributor to the Crocker Art Museum, and Miller and his wife Mimi were major backers of an annual conference for up-and-coming writers and poets held at Squaw Valley, according to their friend Victoria Dalkey, an art critic and Sacramento Bee contributor.
“Burnett Miller was a true Sacramentan,” said current Mayor Darrell Steinberg in a prepared statement. “He was decent, hardworking, and a great contributor to the city’s civic life, arts and culture. He was an inspiration for how to live and serve with grace. And he played tennis well into his 90s.”
Miller served on the City Council from 1971 to 1977 and returned to politics in 1982, when the council chose him to serve out the remaining term of Mayor Phil Isenberg, who’d been elected to the Legislature.
Miller was always “thinking of others first, working hard to improve your community,” his son Powell said.
Perhaps the oddest moment in his brief political career came when he was challenged for re-election to the council by Angelides, who just a teenager, in 1973. Instead of dismissing the upstart, Miller embraced Angelides as a worthy adversary, telling people “it’s great that he’s in the arena,” Angelides recalled.
They became friends and decades later, after returning to the private sector as a developer, Angelides honored Miller in 2017 by dedicating Burnett Miller Park at his recently opened McKinley Village housing project.
“It’s a great honor,” Miller said that day. “All the streets here are named after former artists. Almost all of them were friends of mine, so it’s comfortable being in the place with my old friends.”
Robert Burnett Miller was born Sept. 2, 1923. He spent his career working in the family business: Burnett & Sons, a millwork and lumber company founded in the 1860s by his ancestors Philitus and Henry Burnett. The business, located in the Alkali Flat neighborhood, remains in family hands and is run by one of his sons, Jim.
Miller was a sophomore at Santa Clara College when he went off to serve in the Army. He was eventually assigned to the 21st Armored Infrantry Battalion, saw action in the Battle of the Bulge, and captured 13 German soldiers in France.
He suffered a concussion, shrapnel wounds and temporary deafness when a mortar shell exploded in a foxhole in January 1945. Three weeks later, he rejoined his unit and helped liberate Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star, and his wartime feats were celebrated in the 2007 Ken Burns PBS documentary “The War.”
Later in life he traveled extensively, and frequently veered off the traditional tourist path. He rode camels in Iran and camped in the Libyan desert, said his friend Johan Otto, a Sacramento developer who accompanied him on many of his journeys. When Eymann once questioned him about the wisdom of visiting global hot spots, he told her, “After World War II, nothing really scares me,” she recalled.
Miller is survived by his wife, Mimi; sons Jim, Fitzgerald and Powell; daughters Simone, Mary and Margot; and three grandchildren.