We lost the “sweetest girl in Lockport” the other day. She was 100.
Stephanie Wagner Miller died in North Carolina early last Friday. She was married to William E. Miller for 40 years, until his death, in 1983.
She lived on for 40 years more, and now will be interred next to him at Arlington National Cemetery.
Her husband ran for U.S. vice president in 1964 as Barry Goldwater’s running mate. His bona fides at the time included service as a prosecutor of Nazi war crimes at Nuremberg, Niagara County district attorney, seven terms as a Buffalo-area congressman, and chair of the Republican National Committee.
After the landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, the Miller family moved back to Lockport, where Bill became famous for being unfamous.
“Do you know me?” he asked in a 1975 American Express commercial. It was among the first in a series that ran from 1975 to 1986. By then he was an attorney in Buffalo who served over the years as chair of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and on the boards of local banks and businesses.
In his obituary, the New York Times noted that “he was known as an acid-tongued extremely conservative Republican, a natty dresser, and an expert at billiards, bridge and golf.”
His wife’s death notice in North Carolina noted that she led “an active, healthy life of tennis, bridge, and traveling. She left upstate NY almost 26 years ago to make her home in NC where two of her four children reside.”
That would be William E. Miller Jr., of Charlotte – who, in the 1990s, twice lost races for a Buffalo-area seat in Congress – and Mary Miller James, of Salisbury. The other children are Libby Miller Fitzgerald, of Lynchburg, Va., and Stephanie Miller Jr., of Los Angeles.
Stephanie Jr. is how she styled herself this week on “The Stephanie Miller Show,” her nationally syndicated radio program simulcast on Free Speech TV. Monday’s emotional show was dedicated to her mother.
“As my Dad always said, she was the sweetest girl in Lockport,” Stephanie Jr. said on air. Miller was an attorney when Stephanie Wagner was a witness in one of his first trials. He later asked her out – and proposed after the third date. Stephanie Jr. told their meet-cute story on the tribute show: “My mother always said, ‘He winked at me on the witness stand!’ ”
Stephanie Jr. is a 1979 graduate of DeSales Catholic High School, where she once did a talent-show sketch to the tune of “Torn Between Two Lovers.” She wore a dress, sewn by her mother, with panels that tore off. “I got my first laugh, and that was it,” she told the Los Angeles Times in a 1998 profile. “It’s like a drug. It’s always been my only drug.”
She got her start in radio doing bits for Sandy Beach on Hot 104 radio, when she lived in a one-bedroom apartment above a pizza joint on Hertel Avenue. Then she got her own show in Lockport, which led to gigs at stations from Rochester to Chicago to New York to L.A.
“Frankly, if you don’t like my career, you can blame people in Buffalo,” she told Alan Pergament in The Buffalo News in 1998, “because they are the ones who encouraged me. They were the ones who laughed and said I was funny.”
Her mother always told her that, too, as she pointed out on the tribute show. “There wasn’t a day in my life that she didn’t tell me how proud she was and how well I was doing. She was wrong – but my point is how nice of her. At a time when this country is so divided in politics, I just thought love is all there is at the end of the day. … That’s why I chose this shirt today.”
It was a T-shirt that said in rainbow colors, “Love Trumps Hate.” This daughter of conservative Republicans makes a living as a liberal firebrand.
“I wished I could talk to my Dad so many times about what has happened to his and Barry Goldwater’s Republican Party,” she said on the tribute show. “I wish I could talk to him about being a Nuremberg prosecutor and having a party that has Nazi flags flying at some of its rallies.”
It was Patrick Buchanan’s combative speech at the 1992 Republican convention that turned her off her parents’ political party. Years later, she and Bay Buchanan, Pat’s sister, were co-hosts of “Equal Time” on CNBC. On the tribute show, Stephanie Jr. played a clip of the time her mother spoke to Bay on the air: “Thanks for trying to keep Stephanie in line. I know it’s a huge job. I think she’s still going through a phase.” To which Bay responded: “I’m hoping for the same thing, Mrs. Miller.”
That L.A. Times profile of Stephanie Jr. ran 25 years ago, when her mother was 75. The reporter quoted her introducing her mother as a guest on the radio show: “Ladies and gentlemen – my mom. We had to get the headphones over the Republican helmet hair.”
Mother recalled attending Barry Goldwater’s funeral, where she ran into Bob Dole, who “referred to the time when he was up in Buffalo to help in the campaign [when] your brother was running for Congress.”
“Did he discuss his Viagra use at all?” Stephanie Jr. asked. (Dole was doing ads for it at the time.) “I don’t mean to be indelicate.”
“Oh, Stephie, you leave me speechless,” her mother said.
Daughter is often indelicate, but never speechless. The tribute show – by Lockport’s funniest export to its sweetest – was both funny and sweet. Stephanie Jr. called Stephanie Sr. a national treasure.
“My hero,” she said. “My namesake.”