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Gail Miller — Carrying on the legacy of Larry H. Miller

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Larry was a genius, and so is Gail in a different way. She’s pretty easy to underestimate . . . She is, in many ways, just an ordinary woman. She sees herself as that. That’s where she gets her joy. But she’s been called upon to step out of that and assume this role as the lifeblood of this organization and she really is. She’s the glue. – Kim Wilson

There are moments when Gail Miller pauses to look out the south window of her hillside mansion to find the grave of her first husband, who is buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery at the foot of the steep hill that falls away from her back yard. She planned it this way, choosing his final resting place so she could see it and remember and think her thoughts.

Not that she needs to look down there to think about him. Like the rest of us, she sees Larry H. Miller's name and life’s work throughout the valley – the NBA arena, the NBA team, the car dealerships that line State Street, the racetrack, the theaters, the TV station, various buildings, a campus and more.

“Larry is just always there,” she says. “The Larry H. Miller brand is so evident in the community that it’s there everyday. You can’t not think about it, and for me it’s deeper because of the personal relationship. Everything that is said about Larry conjures a memory or a thought.”

Feb. 20 marked — can you believe it? — the fifth anniversary of her husband’s passing at the age of 64 from complications resulting from diabetes. Now 70, she spends much of her time carrying on her husband’s legacy, but she also has cut out her own life.

Gail remarried last June. Her husband is Kim Wilson, an affable, 66-year-old trial lawyer with Snow, Christensen and Martineau. They became acquainted as neighbors while enduring remarkably similar hardships. When Gail looks out the back window at her husband’s grave, Kim can stand beside her and see the grave of his late wife, Vickie, who died three years ago.

“You can see them both when we look out of our room, and we do,” he says. “And we reflect upon our companions, and we knew (the other’s companion) as well. We’re very conscious of our past companions.”

Their courtship, which lasted a year, is straight out of a Hallmark special (but more on that later). He describes his life with Gail as “wonderful.” They leave for work in the morning — he to his law firm and she to her meetings for the LHM businesses. Their evenings are filled with Jazz games, community events and family. Between them, they have nine children, 34 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

“Gail and I go to work every day, then have this very incredible life of responsibilities, and then we have this delightful, ordinary life when we can get to it,” says Kim, who mentioned that on the way home the previous night they had stopped at a grocery store to buy milk and bread — with coupons.

When asked how she is doing five years down the road from all the tumult of her life with the frenetic Larry H. Miller, Gail says: “I’m very happy. I miss Larry. But it was a stressful life. There was a lot I gave up, but I don’t know if I would do things a lot differently. I have a lot of benefits from my life with him, and not just monetary.”

Larry, an intense, obsessively driven man with an artist’s temperament, was rarely home. He worked 90 hours a week most of his professional life to build an empire that began with 30 employees and one car dealership and grew into 90 businesses (42 dealerships) and 7,000 employees, doing $3.2 billion in annual sales. In the last years of his life, he created the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation. Eventually, the entire Miller fortune will be placed in the foundation, providing money to help people and organizations in the community.

Larry desperately wanted his businesses to continue after he was gone and for his fortune “to do good things” in perpetuity. With that in mind, he groomed his wife and children to take the reins. For years he held formal weekly meetings with his sons to teach them his values and business philosophy. After returning from work each day, usually after dark, he downloaded to Gail all that had transpired with the business that day, sometimes as he soaked in a hot tub. For his wife, it was like an MBA class.

“You have so much institutional knowledge,” Larry told Gail near the end. “You need to stay involved until the boys are on their feet.”

He appointed oldest son Greg as CEO and Gail as chairman of the board and owner, but Gail says: “It doesn’t have any meaning. As owner I have to ensure it remains viable and profitable and true to our values. I oversee Greg, but I don’t ride herd on him. Greg is CEO, and I’m smart enough to know he has to have the latitude to do what he needs to do.”

Gail says her primary role is to preserve and teach the values Larry espoused. She is amazed that just five years after Larry’s death, less than half of the company’s employees knew him. She remembers this during the frequent speeches she gives at company functions.

“Larry and I were very much aligned about how things should be done and the way we looked at things, particularly money,” she says. “We both wanted to protect it and looked at it as a stewardship. I try to make people understand that we have a responsibility to keep doing good, in customer relations and community involvement and the presence we have in the community. I want to preserve what Larry did so it doesn’t get lost … that’s always on my mind.”

When Larry was alive, Gail was sometimes frustrated that almost everything she did was tied to her husband and his business. She was anxious to have her own identity and life, but a curious thing happened as she attended the meetings in her husband’s stead.

“I found out it was really fun,” she says. “It was hard to extract myself. I like to be involved and having input. I’m a late bloomer. All those years I was in the background not making much of a splash. I was content to be in the background, but then, just before he died, Larry said: ‘I need you to step forward. I need you to be the bridge.’ Once I got into it, and got involved in the work, I realized it was a dynamic thing.”

Gail is involved in much of what’s going on in the businesses, including new purchases and construction, but not in the hiring and firing process. The company has grown to 10,000 employees and, according to her, just completed its best year ever.

She is also involved in the philanthropic end of the enterprise, which means, among other things, sorting through requests for money.

“It’s nice. Greg makes the money and I spend it,” she says. “But what I realized when Larry died is how big the responsibility is to be a good steward. Not just giving money away — that’s easy — but do it in the right way for the right reasons for the right purpose. I have to be very careful in decision-making about making it go as far as it can and helping as many as we can.”

Instead of slowing down in her senior years, Gail seems to have accelerated her pace. There are daily company meetings, speeches, luncheons, events in the community, Jazz games, foundation meetings, phone conferences, endless phone calls. One morning each week she meets with her sons about the business, just as Larry did, and once a month those meetings include the Miller grandkids who are 18 or older.

Gail hired a full-time assistant, Jill Brady, to manage her calendar, schedule appointments, run shopping errands and oversee her household.

“She’s never here at the house,” says Brady. “I come in at nine and she’s gone. I leave at 5 or 5:30 and she’s still not home. I don’t want this to sound wrong, but I don’t know how she’d live her life without someone like me. She’s got so much going on.”

Patti Howells, Gail’s longtime friend, has an explanation for this: “A lot of it is she feels a big obligation to (oversee) what she and Larry did. People think she’s there as a figurehead, but no one knows more of what Larry wanted than she does. She is savvy. She knows what’s happening.”

Kim agrees. “Larry couldn’t have been Larry without Gail,” he says. “She was a rudder. It’s not widely known, but she’s the smartest girl in the room. She always is. It’s unacceptable for her not to understand everything about everything. She sees everything. She has an incredible capacity.

"Larry was a genius, and so is Gail in a different way. She’s pretty easy to underestimate. She just always wanted to be a mom. That was good enough for her. She irons, sews, made all her own clothes forever and she knows how to get down and scrub the floors and she loves it. She is, in many ways, just an ordinary woman. She sees herself as that. That’s where she gets her joy. But she’s been called upon to step out of that and assume this role as the lifeblood of this organization and she really is. She’s the glue.”

The Wilsons and Millers were neighbors for more than 15 years before Gail and Kim married, and they attended the same LDS Church ward. Kim met Larry through his legal work and their mutual interest in church history (Kim is founder and chairman of the board of the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation, and Larry funded The Joseph Smith Papers). Kim came to know Gail years ago through her service to his late wife. Vickie was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 5 — the same ailment that ultimately killed Larry. About 20 years ago, she also was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“She was an invalid at some level most of her life,” says Kim.

Gail was the ward’s Relief Society president and, as such, coordinated service efforts in behalf of the Wilsons and personally attended to their needs. When Kim politely resisted the help, saying he could take care of things himself, Gail would have none of it. As Kim tells it, “Gail got in my face a couple of times and said, ‘You just let us help you. It’s your job to let us help you.’”

She arranged meals, filled the freezer with food, cleaned the house and helped care for Vickie.

“She was regularly in our home,” says Kim. “She was extraordinary. She had an incredible impact ministering to my wife and filling the needs of my kids and taking care of things.”

When one of Kim’s children accidentally burned their house to the ground, Gail was even more of a frequent presence in their lives, providing service for the family. Incredibly, four years later, after the Wilson home had been rebuilt, one of their other children burned the house down again and Gail came to the rescue again.

Their paths seemed to cross at every turn. In the latter years of their first marriages, Gail and Kim were both caring for invalid spouses.

“We were in competition for the best handicap parking spot at the ward,” he says. “Numerous times we parked side by side getting our companions into their wheelchairs and wheeling them into church."

Vickie died Dec. 29, 2010 — her 39th wedding anniversary — about 22 months after Larry's death.

In the summer of 2012, Kim was scheduled to attend a social event related to his church history work. He didn’t want to go alone, so he called and invited Gail, figuring she would know many of the people at the event. A year later they married.

“When I persuaded her to marry me — which was no small step on her part — she did say that no man had ever proposed to her,” he says (Gail had given the slow-moving Larry a marriage-or-else proposal after years of dating). “She said she was unwilling to accept anything but a formal proposal of marriage. We had some fun with that. It took some work. I’m delighted she decided we could spend part of our lives together.”

Those close to Gail say they have never seen her happier and are quick to credit Kim for this. “He’s a good man," says Gail of her new husband. "He’s very different than Larry. He’s very calm and patient. And he’s funny.”

She and her new husband have traveled together extensively – something Larry rarely would do because of his preoccupation with work. They toured Europe for three weeks (and actually camped out a couple of nights) and traveled to China, Iceland, Africa, and various U.S. destinations.

Gail and Kim are building — or renovating — a new home. They bought an entire floor of the new Promontory Condos high rise in downtown Salt Lake City, just down the road from the tiny Capitol Hill home where Gail was raised. They are in the process of tearing out walls and converting what was supposed to be three condos into one (Greg has bought another floor). Once construction is complete, the couple will put the Miller home up for sale and move downtown.

“Gail is very happy,” says Howells. “We’ve been friends almost 34 years, and I really have never seen her better. And he’s wonderful to her. He makes her laugh. He’s a very wonderful example of softness and caring and bringing her peace in her life that she didn’t have with Larry. You don’t build an empire without stress and trauma and difficult life choices, and Larry brought that mix. The pressures are gone. The building is over with. Greg is making that happen in a much calmer way.”

Brady concurs, saying, “She’s happier than ever. She even played a joke on me. She had never done that. I burst out laughing because it caught me so off guard. People are always commenting on how great she looks and how happy she is. Kim has been great for her. He pays attention to her.”

When Gail is asked about all this, she says, “It’s surprising to me that so many people do comment on that. But there was a lot of stress from (Larry’s) personality and from the illness. People don’t realize how hard diabetes is to deal with. People who live with them are deeply affected. There’s the care-giving. There’s the worry. You’re constantly wondering, is he OK? It just goes out to everybody around you. You don’t realize what it does to your life till he’s gone. His health was bad for a long time.”

The word acquaintances often use to describe Gail is “tough.” It crops up frequently in discussions about her. She grew up in a family where money was so tight they had only one light bulb that they moved around the house as needed. She made her own clothing and began working as a teenager, dropping out of college after one semester to work at the telephone company as the family’s primary provider.

She continued to weather many trials in her life with Larry and more have arrived at her door since her husband’s passing. In August, Gail’s second-oldest son, Roger, passed away, just short of his 44th birthday.

“He just had an untimely death,” she says. “An unfortunate accident. It’s not something I want to talk about.”

Two weeks later, a great-grandchild, Larry Aiden Taylor, also passed away.

After Larry died, Gail left much of his things as he left them — his notes and papers on the desk in his home office, for instance, and everything he had left that was unfinished: “I decided I’m going to move on to other things,” she says.

There was one exception: She got rid of the vast collection of Larry's trademark golf shirts — many of them emblazoned with Jazz — taking them to Deseret Industries simply because she needed the closet space.

“She’s done beautifully,” says Howells. “I believe she’s gone through the stages of mourning you have to go through beautifully. But she’s tough.”

Looking back five years later, Gail finds solace in the peace that her husband finally found in his final days, which followed decades of relentless drive.

“He had all those setbacks and each time he would come back,” recalls Gail, as she begins to cry. “It was just like him to fight back. Finally, it was as if Heavenly Father said you’re not supposed to, so he gave him that disease (calciphylaxis). His transition from this life to the reality that he wasn’t going to be here and he had to step into that realm of preparation for death was interesting because he left the cares behind. And he was ready. He made the decision to die.

"He could’ve gone on with dialysis for another year or 18 months, but he just said that’s enough. It’s interesting how it was almost like he orchestrated his whole life. Even when he died, the timing was good. He didn’t have to deal with the downturn (in the economy), and the values of the estate were low so he benefitted taxwise. Timing was everything for him. He used to talk about that.”

She pauses as she thinks about all this and the passage of time and already so much change: “It’s been a long five years and it’s been a short five years,” she says wistfully.

Email: drob@deseretnews.com