SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Jazz owner and philanthropist Gail Miller received a congressional honor Thursday recognizing her work in the community and with young people.
The Joint Leadership Commission of the Congressional Award Foundation and its board of directors presented Miller the Horizon Award in a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
"I can't begin to tell you how humbled and honored I am," Miller said after Sen. Mitt Romney handed her the award.
Romney, R-Utah, recalled how Miller and her late husband, Larry H. Miller, opened their downtown basketball arena to 2002 Winter Games events and spent the entire 17 days there working.
"Gail was there as a tireless volunteer helping put on the best Olympics our country has ever seen," he said.
Miller, 75, continues to serve the community from providing Thanksgiving meals for homeless people to some 40 full scholarships to the University of Utah for students who can't afford college, Romney said.
"She is not only a pillar in our community, but an example who serves with grace and with commitment and with personal strength," he said.
Sen. Mike Lee. R-Utah, said people in Utah are great not because of who they are, but what they do.
"I think no one in the state of Utah more appropriately reflects that sentiment than Gail Miller," he said. Miller and her family, he said, make the world a better place selflessly and without any expectation of reward.
No one represents the state "quite so well, quit so nobly, quite so boldly" as Miller, Lee said.
The Horizon Award is given to people from the private sector who have contributed to expanding opportunities for Americans through their own personal contributions, and who have set exceptional examples for young people through their successes in life.
Previous recipients include singer Mariah Carey, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
"I feel like when I have been given so much I have that responsibility and the stewardship to do more with it," she said in an interview. "It's not fair to just hoard it. … Nothing is as much fun when you keep it yourself as it is when you share it."
As part of the three-day event, Miller will be a panelist Friday for a discussion about advancements for women.
Miller said she learned Wednesday how the award came about from Paxton Baker, chairman of the Congressional Award national board. He told her she impressed him when he was in Utah for a diversity panel her company put on.
When an employee told her she would get the award, she said she was "totally shocked, first of all, that they even knew that I was alive and second, that I would qualify."
The Congressional Award also gave gold medals to 538 young people, including eight from Utah, who committed themselves to years of goal setting and community engagement in order to earn Congress’ highest honor. Program areas are public service, personal development, physical fitness and expedition and exploration.
Miller, who has been politically active in recent years, said the award renewed her faith in Congress "because if they're aware that people are trying to do good and spread their influence in ways that make life better for other people, I'm totally for that."
In her speech, Miller recognized the achievements of the young award winners.
"These experiences that you have had coupled with your hard work will serve you well for the rest of your life. The work you have done has provided you with opportunities to shape your own passion and determine your purpose in life," she said.
Miller said she believes everyone has a mission to fulfill in their daily work. People, she said, should not be defined by fame or how much money they make, but by the good they do and the relationships they foster that bring real rewards.
"The way we conduct ourselves is becoming increasingly more important every day," said Miller, adding that people need to "insist" that courtesy, respect and civility are at the top of their minds no matter the issue or the event.
"By working together, we can eradicate bullying, discrimination and hate, unsportsmanlike conduct and intolerance. We all need to stand up and speak up," she said.
Miller did just that in March after an ugly verbal altercation between Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook and a Utah fan made national headlines. The Jazz owner stood at center court three nights later to deliver a heartfelt message about civility and respect.
Doing that, she said, felt very natural because it was an arena that she invited people into and that has behavioral standards. And when someone didn't follow them, she felt "totally at peace" in talking about it.
"What I didn't expect was how far-reaching that message would be, and it was like 2 ½ minutes long," Miller said. "It shows me that the time is right and there is a need and we each really have to do our part to make a difference."
In her speech Thursday, Miller said she faced a crossroads when her husband died 10 years ago. She said she could have sold their businesses and taken the money and lived a life of leisure.
"But I decided that rather than doing that, I would continue to build our legacy by stepping out of my comfort zone and into an amazing and rewarding opportunity where, with my family, I have been able to bless the lives of others through quality jobs, benefits, philanthropic engagements, civic service, hard work and stewardship," she said.
Miller told the young people that they would face many choices and to use the award to help guide them through their lives.
Congress established the Congressional Award in 1979 to recognize initiative, service and achievement in young people. It is a bipartisan effort in both the Senate and the House.
Utah gold medal winners are Daimion Davis, of Lehi; Katelin Drennan, of Sandy; Kimberly Drennan, of Sandy; Fatima Faizi, of Cottonwood Heights; Nihal Kariparduc, of South Jordan; Thomas Klingonsmith, of Provo; Sarah Shwani, of Sandy; and Dua Azhar, of Bluffdale.