As the turmoil of desegregation rocked Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 1973, district leaders wanted a principal who could oversee the change at previously all-white East Mecklenburg High.
They turned to Leroy “Pop” Miller, who had earned a reputation for tough love and high standards, first at the all-black West Charlotte High, then as he helped desegregate Carmel Junior High.
Miller died Friday at 94, having spent the past decade living with family in Kansas City, Mo. On Sunday, generations of black and white Charlotteans shaped by his 37 years in education will remember him during services at Greenville Memorial AME Zion Church.
“A stern but very fair principal – that was his reputation,” says former school board member Sarah Stevenson.
“He was an educator’s educator,” recalls former board Chair Arthur Griffin, who said Miller knew his students so well that he could catch Griffin, a student at rival Second Ward High, sneaking onto the West Charlotte campus to see friends.
“He really knew how to get the most out of people and to make people proud of being Eagles,” says Jennifer Roberts, former chair of the Mecklenburg County commissioners and an East Meck student under Miller.
Miller became an industrial arts teacher at West Charlotte in 1945, after serving in World War II. His son, William “Skip” Miller, says he earned his nickname when he caught a student throwing wood chips into a power saw. Miller threatened to whip him, and the student pleaded with “Poppa Miller” to spare him, Skip Miller says.
He became assistant principal in 1963, and was named principal of the newly integrated Carmel Junior High in 1971. He took over East Meck in 1973, leading that school until he retired nine years later.
Skip Miller, who was in junior high when his father took over East Meck, says CMS administrators knew Pop Miller had the academic skills and the leadership presence – he stood 6 feet 4, with an athletic build – to control the fights and riots that characterized integration at many schools.
“Certainly it was a trying time,” Skip Miller recalls.
Roberts recalls how Miller emphasized the value of academic accomplishment, making sure straight-A students and National Merit scholars got the same steak dinners that star athletes got.
According to Observer archives, when Miller retired in 1982, students formed the word “Pop” on the football field and got a helicopter to fly Miller and his wife, Sadie, to see it from the air. Even after he retired, he was repeatedly honored by a close-knit alumni community.
As a retiree, Miller made sure the community continued to support youth and schools, says the Rev. Sheldon Shipman, senior pastor at Greenville Memorial AME Zion.
“He could just pull together a group of leaders and folks would basically say, ‘Yes, sir!’ and go do it,” Shipman said.
In 2004, Miller moved to Kansas City to be closer to his son and to enjoy being a grandfather. He had been in failing health in recent months, including circulation problems resulting from frostbite to his feet he received WWII, Skip Miller said.
A wealth of Charlotte history went with Pop Miller. Historian Pamela Grundy captured some of his memories in a 1998 interview on file with the UNC Southern Oral History Collection. In it, Miller voiced frustration with being remembered as a black principal, rather than just a successful one.
“I’ve always wanted to be a good person,” Miller said. “When I go out and cut my grass, I want my yard to look better than any yard in this neighborhood. ... I’d say to the kids I wanted them to be the best in the state of North Carolina, and I wanted to be the best principal in the state.”