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Originally published October 21, 2010 at 8:55 PM | Page modified October 22, 2010 at 8:29 AM

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Paul Miller was a giant among peers

Professor Steven Miller was a dwarf. Though the genetic condition defined his physical life, he did not let it impede his ambitions, or his achievements.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Paul Steven Miller commanded a room. He had a larger-than-life personality, a booming voice, a grand sense of humor.

He cultivated all of this — this persona that made him the center of attention. He relished it. After all, people were going to stare or gawk or point anyway.

Professor Miller was a dwarf. Though the genetic condition defined his physical life, he did not let it impede his ambitions, or his achievements, including posts in two presidential administrations and his most recent job teaching at the University of Washington School of Law.

Professor Miller died of cancer on Oct. 19. He was 49.

"He achieved because he had to in a cruel world," said Rabbi Daniel Weiner, of Temple De Hirsch Sinai, at a memorial service, "but also it was who he was."

Born in Queens, N.Y., Professor Miller went on to earn two Ivy League degrees: a bachelor's from the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree from Harvard. On paper, he was a shoo-in for a job at a big-time firm.

But when he interviewed face-to-face, it was a different story. He got dozens of rejections. One attorney explained the problem: "Clients will think we're running a freak show," Professor Miller recalled.

He told the story often, said Jennifer Mechem, his wife of 17 years. The experience stung him terribly, but he wasn't just going to sit down and take it.

"I felt compelled to do something more meaningful with my career that would have an impact," he later told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

After landing a job at a Los Angeles law firm, thanks to a reference from a friend, he went on to spend 10 years as a commissioner with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces job-discrimination claims.

He twice worked for the White House, first as a liaison to the disability community under President Clinton and later with the Obama administration, helping find and vet candidates for presidential appointments.

"He was good at it because he knew so many people," Mechem said.

Indeed, Professor Miller was the consummate networker. When he came to the law school in 2004, he immediately set about meeting everyone. Clark Lombardi, who was hired at the same time, recalls getting a phone call on one of his first days.

"It's Miller," Professor Miller said. "Miller who?" Lombardi thought. The two became fast friends — another knack. Professor Miller made deep connections. He made people feel important.

And he made them laugh. To illustrate complex legal points to his students, Professor Miller would come up with elaborate scenarios. Then he would act them out, complete with props.

In Professor Miller's office, Lombardi recalled, "there would be empty bottles of scotch or an ax or some fake blood. He would say: "just another torts class."

He was well-known for his karaoke escapades, performed as part of charity fundraisers. Picture it: a dwarf, singing "I am woman," in a dress.

"He was never afraid to do something or try something crazy," his wife said.

When she first met him, at a conference on the Americans with Disabilities Act, she was instantly attracted. "It was this sort of thing where you just look at somebody and everything about them just seems perfect in some strange way," she recalled.

The couple had two children, Naomi, 10, and Delia, 5, whom Professor Miller regaled with ridiculous magic tricks, stories and jokes. He brought piles of his daughters' artwork to his office, proudly pointing out to colleagues the painterly qualities. He hung their line drawings next to works of modern art, which he collected.

Over the past decade, Professor Miller had recurring tumors in his left arm. Amputation did not stop the cancer from returning. When it became clear his time was near, he began a video project in which he told stories and answered questions, so his daughters could later learn more about their dad, and about life.

Lombardi recalls one story.

"When I was born, I know my parents were scared," Professor Miller told Lombardi. "They looked at this shriveled little child and they worried. Will he have friends? Will he be able to play? Will he be able to do the things kids do?

"They had no idea what a marvelous life I would have. ... We all can, and we all must, lead a marvelous life."

In addition to his wife and children, Professor Miller is survived by two sisters, Marjorie Piqueira and Nancy Miller; a stepsister, Susan Wolfert, and a stepbrother, Marc Freyberg.

The UW law school will host a celebration of Professor Miller's life at 3:30 p.m. Monday in Room 138 at William H. Gates Hall.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or

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