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Published: Sunday, 7/22/2012

Retired exec led Sauder in growth to industry giant

Virgil L. Miller, 1940-2012

BY MARK ZABORNEY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

ARCHBOLD, Ohio -- Virgil L. Miller, who helped build Sauder Manufacturing Co. into a leading maker of church and worship-space seating and of furniture for hospitals and schools, died Thursday at his home in Fulton County's German Township. He was 72.

When he learned he had cancer two years ago, he read books on the disease and how to deal with it, his son, Brian, said. Faith, humor, and discipline were hallmarks of his approach to cancer -- and to life.

On good days and bad, he walked three miles. He shared his struggle but didn't complain about it, his son said.

"It was strength and confidence in where things would take him after he passed," his son said. "His approach till the day he died was very consistent with how he was before the disease. The people who knew him recognized the qualities in him that were being expressed in that particular chapter in his life."

Mr. Miller retired in 2005 after 32 years as president and chief executive of Sauder Manufacturing, which began as an outgrowth of Erie Sauder's Sauder Woodworking Co. in Archbold. Mr. Miller was chairman of the board until December, 2009. He worked at the firm for 46 years.

"When he took it over, it was a pretty small company," said Maynard Sauder, Erie's son and until November, 2011, chairman of Sauder Woodworking. "He built it into what it is today -- a big institutional [furniture] manufacturer."

He had an "ability to think through something and not make a quick decision," Mr. Sauder said. "And he always made the right decision."

Mr. Miller's aim was to lead the company, not just be in charge.

"He took tremendous joy in working with other people and in developing their talents," his son said. "He was gifted at teasing out the wisdom of others."

The firm made news in the early 1990s for the custom design of cherrywood pews and chairs in the early American traditional style for a chapel at the Camp David presidential retreat. In the main, though, hard wooden pews gave way to new designs with contoured seats and lumbar support -- but they were still pews.

"We call it attentive comfort," Mr. Miller told The Blade in 1994. "Our goal is to help people pay attention, not put them to sleep."

He was a former chairman of the Archbold Area Local Schools board of education and the Goshen College board of trustees in Goshen, Ind. He also was board chairman of Four Seasons Produce, Ephrata, Pa. He served on the boards of Sunshine Children's Home and the Sunshine Foundation in the Toledo area, Mennonite Health Alliance in Goshen, Ind., and Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind.

He was born May 10, 1940, to Bessie and Charles Miller and grew up on a farm near Pettisville, Ohio. He was a graduate of Pettisville High School and attended Goshen College.

He was a Mennonite and performed service as a conscientious objector in Denver.

Surviving are his wife, Mary Ann Miller, whom he married Aug. 15, 1964; daughter, Audra Mark; son, Brian Miller; brothers, Robert, Glen, and Dale Miller; sisters, Ada Brenneman and Marilouise Waidelich, and four grandchildren.

Visitation is to be from 2-8 p.m. today in Zion Mennonite Church, Archbold, where he was a member. Memorial services are to be at 4 p.m. Monday in the church. Arrangements are by Grisier Funeral Home, Archbold.

The family suggests tributes to Goshen College or the Mennonite Economic Development Associates, Lancaster, Pa.



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