It took Mike Miller seven years to finish his bachelor’s degree, but by March 1963, he was an official University of Washington graduate.
By the time the university held its graduation ceremony, Miller was in the Army.
Graduation would have to wait.
He didn’t know then it would take 54 years to make his Pomp and Circumstance walk.
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He also didn’t know he’d play a special ceremonial role when he did.
This weekend, the Kennewick native returned to Seattle to graduate at the school’s 142nd annual commencement.
And he served as the “Guardian of the Gonfalon” — the honored graduate who carries the banner entering Husky Stadium. He led the arts and sciences graduates.
As a younger man, Miller viewed the missed graduation as a worthwhile sacrifice that helped him avoid being deployed to Vietnam.
He’d enlisted in the Army when the conflict was heating up. Draftees were being sent to the war zone, but enlistees had more control over how they served.
Miller enlisted under a program that required six months of active duty followed by five years in the reserves. He served in a civil affairs unit and was not sent overseas.
It just popped into my head, a bucket thing. I hadn’t really graduated from my university. I wanted to see if they would just allow me to walk.
Mike Miller of Kennewick
After his short military career, Miller remained in Seattle. He worked as a salesman and built a life with his first wife and sons Michael and Evan. In all, he spent 36 years in the Puget Sound region, developing interests in mountain climbing (Rainier, three times) and competing in and judging chili contests.
By the time he returned to Kennewick in 1989 to help his aging parents, college graduation was a distant memory.
That changed after his second wife, Joy, died a year ago. Joy left him with a list of tasks, including sprinkling her ashes at the golf courses they’d played together. Her bucket list inspired him to contemplate his own.
“It just popped into my head, a bucket thing. I hadn’t really graduated from my university. I wanted to see if they would just allow me to walk,” he said.
This spring, he contacted the UW Alumni Association to inquire about walking in the 2017 commencement program.
The answer was an enthusiastic yes.
A spokeswoman for the alumni association confirmed it not only invited Miller to participate, but made him a “Guardian of the Gonfalon,” a position of honor.
As guardian, he wore Husky regalia and remained with the gonfalon throughout the ceremony.
Per the UW website, the “gonfalonieres” tradition dates to Italian medieval and Renaissance communities.
Long after his own university days, Miller remains an unapologetic Dawg.
His home is Husky purple and gold, inside and out. His car sports Husky plates and an oversized purple “W” in the rear window.
His rhododendrons are purple and, lest anyone miss the connection, a Husky flag flies over the driveway, a proud challenge to his neighbor’s red Alabama banner.
Miller graduated from Kennewick High School in 1956. He selected UW after traveling with his father, a Hanford union president, to conventions in New York and other major cities.
I had seen real buildings. I wanted to go to a major university.
Mike Miller of Kennewick
The boy from Eastern Washington was dazzled by cityscapes, a tour of the Empire State Building and city culture. While most of his college-bound classmates headed to what was then Washington State College in Pullman, Miller longed for Seattle.
“I had seen real buildings,” he said. “I wanted to go to a major university.”
He was a middling student who graduated from Kennewick with a 2.2 GPA, he said. His entrance exam scores at UW were less than promising.
“They didn’t figure I was going to make it,” he said.
“They” were almost right.
Miller pledged a fraternity. He spent his freshman year competing on the gymnastics and rifle teams, pursuing girls and racking up a less-than-stellar academic record.
“That freshman year was a disaster for me. I almost flunked out,” he recalled.
He gave up sports during his second year to work on his grades and earn his degree.
He celebrated it for a second time Saturday with more than 5,500 other graduates and 40,000 guests.