Deadbeat

Vance Miller lives in a Highland Park mansion, carries weight in the GOP, and parties with high society. He owes you, the taxpayer, $26 million, and he ain't paying.

Henry had a mind for business and little interest in peddling vegetables. So in 1914, the year Henry Jr. was born, he entered into the real estate business. His success, old-timers say, came in pressing flesh and making friends.

"Henry would go to Republic Bank nearly every day, stand around the tellers' counter, and convince customers to invest in his deals," recalls Horace Vale, a salesman who worked for Henry Sr. A charitable man, Henry Sr. became known as "Mr. Realtor," offering his expertise free of charge to nonprofit institutions around the city.

Henry Jr., a soft-spoken, studious man, joined his dad's firm in the 1940s and developed a reputation as the consummate mediator between buyer and seller.

His mild manners, however, belied his no-nonsense approach to business. Developer Trammell Crow became Henry's best client. He brokered deals for nearly every national company that purchased land in Dallas though its big growth spurts in the '50s, '60s and '70s. He helped cover the landscape with Kentucky Fried Chicken stands, Jack-in-the-Box, Baskin-Robbins, and Dunkin Donuts. By the early 1970s, the company had expanded to Houston, San Antonio, and Austin.

Beyond the brokerage business, Henry Jr. developed Preston Royal Village shopping center in 1958 and bought the now-tony Highland Park Village in 1975 for only $5 million. The center, which is now held by a Miller family trust, has the highest rents of any retail space in Dallas-Fort Worth.

The company grew to 13 divisions by 1983, including an international division with offices in Belgium and West Germany, and a residential division with 700 brokers. After that record-setting year, it ranked as the largest privately held real estate brokerage firm in the nation.

In 1984, at the top of the market, Henry Jr. sold the company's commercial and residential divisions to San Francisco-based Grubb & Ellis, a publicly held company, for $47 million. Henry Jr. retired to spend a portion of the year in his Paris apartment, but continued to raise money for Dallas' opera, symphony, and other cultural institutions.

When quizzed in the business press about mentors, former Miller underlings such as Roger Staubach and Herb Weitzman, who now own their own real estate firms, are apt to remember Henry Jr. as a role model and true civic leader.

Nobody seems to volunteer the same opinion of Vance.
Born in Oklahoma in the middle of the Great Depression, he was actually Charles Calvin Vance for the first 12 years of his life. His mother, Juanita, from Kiowa, Oklahoma, the daughter of a Methodist preacher, was a widow when she met Henry Jr. in Hot Springs, Arkansas, during World War II.

When they married in 1945, Henry Jr. adopted Juanita's two children, Charles and his sister, Patsy. He was renamed Vance Charles Miller.

In the following years, the socially ambitious Juanita steered the family away from Henry Jr.'s Jewish roots--which weren't exactly welcomed at the Dallas Country Club. Growing up in South Dallas and later in Greenway Park, Vance got teased for being Jewish--even though he was not, one acquaintance recalls him saying.

Henry Jr. related in an interview that he and Juanita studied Christian Science before their marriage and that, three years later, they both converted to the faith, although they never fully embraced its aversion to medical science.

As Henry Jr.'s fortunes increased, Juanita's status quest did as well. "She was in the women's choir at the Rotary Club, and I knew her. We would talk," recalls one longtime Dallas acquaintance. "After her husband became wealthier, her nose went up, and...she didn't know any of us after that."

Nobody would deny Henry Jr. and his wife's importance in bringing the Dallas Opera into existence and sustaining the Dallas Symphony. Henry Jr. later conceded in an interview in 1987 that his civic work--including all the society parties and charity balls--had a business purpose as well. It helped increase his company's exposure in "important places," he explained.

In contrast to Henry's tenderness, Juanita possessed a certain boot-toughness. "Everyone at Miller was scared to death of her," says one former employee. "She would show up unannounced and do a sort of white-glove inspection, get really angry if your desk was messy."

It's that brass that Vance seems to have inherited.
Like his adopted father, Vance went to SMU. He graduated in 1955 and served in the Air Force as a fighter pilot before going to work in the family business. He was shortish (5 feet 6 inches on his driver's license), with a full head of hair and features more classical than his father's.

He married his college sweetheart, Geraldine "Tincy" Erwin, who did her best to follow in her mother-in-law's footsteps. "It was very difficult marrying into this family with the power that Juanita had," she told a reporter in 1994. "She is very intimidating."

By the late 1960s, when Vance moved to his current home on Beverly Drive, it was clear that he, rather than his half-brother, Henry S. Miller III, would be the one to assume the mantle as head of the family business.

Under Henry Jr.'s expansionist hand, the company had grown large but remained a family affair. In 1971, he named Vance president, but during the mid-1970s real estate slump, he was replaced.

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