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University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Miller, Harlan
(April 3, 1897–August 7, 1968)

–newspaper columnist and editor and magazine feature writer—was a household name in Iowa from 1925 to 1965, thanks to his "Over the Coffee" column, which appeared in the Des Moines Register for nearly 40 years. Described as "one of Iowa's best known newspapermen" when he died in 1968, Miller also was known as a "provocative writer" who evoked a response from his readers. The journalist used to say of himself: "No one is neutral about Harlan Miller."

    From the start, Miller was a man of the world, not just of Iowa. Born in Poland on April 3, 1897, he arrived in Des Moines with his parents when he was five years old. He attended the Des Moines schools and graduated from West High School.

    Before he began his career in journalism, Miller served his country by volunteering during World War I. He was attached to the U.S. Army Air Service overseas from 1917 to 1919. Before returning home, he joined the Hoover mission to aid war-torn Europe and was sent to his native Poland and Danzig as well as Berlin, Germany. General John Pershing cited Miller for meritorious and conspicuous service with the Allied European Forces during World War I.

    After returning to Iowa, Miller studied engineering at Iowa State College and then studied law at Drake University. His first columns appeared in Iowa State's campus paper under the title "Bally Rot."His career as a journalist beganduring law school when he signed on as a reporter for the Des Moines Register.

    He left Des Moines in 1922 to work for the United Press news service in Boston, Chicago, and New York City. Then he worked for the New York Post, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Miami Daily News.

    He returned to Des Moines in 1925 and the next year became city editor of the Register. He started the "Over the Coffee" column in 1925 and continued it without interruption until World War II, when he returned to military service. He had received a reserve officer's commission in the U.S. Army Air Corps between the wars, and in July 1942 was called to active duty as a captain. He was promoted to major and went to Europe with the Air Force Public Relations Section in 1943. After the D-Day invasion of Europe, he served in the Normandy campaign. He left the service as a lieutenant colonel and returned to Iowa to write "Over the Coffee."He had written the column for the Washington Post and other newspapers, but he always returned to Iowa.

    Although his heart was in Iowa, he traveled to the far corners of the world and wrote about it for the people back home. His travels and writings took him to South America in 1930 and 1950 and to Russia in 1936 and 1956. Between 1948 and 1961 he traveled widely in Europe, Africa, and Asia. By 1955 he had visited more than 50 countries.

    When Miller retired on April Fool's Day in 1965, Donald Kaul took over the column. Kaul said he would attempt to live up to the columnist's creed, that "the Register is as vital to some readers' days as breakfast."Kaul explained to readers that the column "was, for the most part, a daily collection of anecdotes, jokes and pithy observations.... Its basic character was chatty; it fit its title; it was half of a conversation one might have in the neighborhood coffee shop of a morning."

    Miller also was known for his monthly feature, "The Man Next Door," written for Better Homes and Garden, and a monthly page, "There's a Man in the House," for Ladies' Home Journal. "There's a Man in the House" also became a title for a collection of the journalist's columns in 1955. Gardner Cowles, president of the Des Moines Register and Tribune, wrote a prefatory note for the book, describing Miller as "the best-known and most controversial man in Iowa."He continued, "He is humorist, philosopher, storyteller, friend, gossip, critic and counselor to 1,000,000 Iowans who have been reading his daily column in The Des Moines Register."Cowles, who took credit for transforming Harlan Miller from a city editor into a columnist, concluded by calling Miller "one of the very ablest columnists writing today."

    Miller died of asthma and emphysema at age 71 at his Des Moines home. His wife, Doris Green Miller, known as "B. W."in his column, had died the previous December. The couple had two sons–Harlan Jr. and Quentin–and a daughter, Doris.
Sources Some of Miller's features and columns are included in Harlan Miller, There's a Man in the House (1955). Other sources include the Greene Recorder, 8/14/1968; and a front-page obituary in the Des Moines Tribune, 8/7/1968.
Contributor: Judy Bowman