Miller, Robert Thomas (1893–1962)

By: Floylee Hunter Hemphill Goldberger

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: January 19, 2019

Robert Thomas (Tom) Miller, mayor of Austin, the son of Thomas McCall and Annie (Gillum) Miller, was born on Congress Avenue in Austin on September 21, 1893, and grew up in a home in the old Tenth Ward at the corner of First and San Jacinto streets. He was the grandson of Dr. James Weston Miller, an early Presbyterian missionary in Texas. Tom was educated in the Austin public schools; he attended Austin High School and graduated from the Whitis School, where his future wife, Nellie, was also a student. After a year at the University of Texas, Tom entered his father's produce and cotton business. In 1917 he married Miss Nellie May Miller, daughter of Wallace Miller. The couple had two children. After his father's death in 1916, Tom and his brother James continued the produce business. In 1924 they moved to a massive stone warehouse at 301 West Fourth Street that served as the center of a prosperous business until a few years after Tom Miller's death. It was torn down in 1968. Tom Miller's Hide-house, as the tannery and produce business became known to all citizens, was an Austin landmark that could scarce be ignored by anyone in the neighborhood, as a pungent smell made it recognizable from blocks away. The ready response to anyone who complained was "That smell is money!"

In April 1933 Tom Miller won the office of city councilman after a heated election campaign, and the four other newly elected councilmen chose him to be mayor. Thereafter he won every election in which he was a candidate. Though he declined to run in 1949, he returned to the political arena in 1955 and served until 1961, when he retired because of failing health. His tenure totaled twenty-two years, and he became a legend in Texas politics. Miller's first term of office coincided with the first year of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency and with the second term of Governor Miriam A. Ferguson. His enthusiastic support of President Roosevelt's program and his personal relationships with New Deal officials enabled him to bring Federal Emergency Relief Administration projects to Austin, thereby securing employment for many Austin citizens and bringing some of the Rooseveltian experiments to town. Under Miller, Austin received the first federal housing project in the nation. The New Deal coffers that Miller was able to tap helped him to support the cultural and recreational facilities he promoted. Among these were the Austin Symphony Orchestra and many city parks. Under the leadership of Tom Miller, the city prospered. He never received any compensation or salary for his terms of office nor for any trips to Washington, D.C., concerning benefits for Austin. When he retired for the first time in 1949, his associates and city employees paid for his desk and chair and for his commemorative books of newspaper clippings, his only material compensation. An interested partisan, Lady Bird Johnson, appraised his role: "Tom Miller dominated the city scene for such a long time. He had a passionate love of Austin, and it was also a proprietary love. He just felt like it was his town. He wanted to do everything for it. It was his life."

From his desk at City Hall Tom Miller ran the produce business with the able help of his brother James and a private telephone line to his warehouse. With City Manager Guiton Morgan, whose desk was opposite his in an adjoining office, he conducted the business of the city. Some say he ruled Austin as if it were a big family; some called him a benevolent dictator. He believed municipal government was "personal government." He was a man who could charm and take charge, one who believed in using compromise to run the city without sacrificing principle. One of his strategies was to delay any unwanted action by skillful interruptions, by quoting Shakespeare, Milton, and other poetry, and by holding marathon council meetings that lasted sometimes until 3:00 A.M., wearing out his opposition and avoiding taking a vote. He believed the lengthy meetings "cleared the air."

During his tenure the city acquired 1,200 acres of land for City Park on Lake Austin; 3,000 acres for Bergstrom Air Force Base; the Butler recreational tract (on which now stand the Municipal Auditorium and the City Coliseum); Hancock Golf Course and Community Center; Deep Eddy; Doris Miller Auditorium; the Municipal Golf Course; Caswell Tennis Center; and numerous neighborhood playgrounds. Miller's mayorship also saw the development of Disch Field for baseball games; the acquisition of 350 additional acres for expansion of Mueller Airport; the acquisition of a tract for the city cemetery; and the construction of a new Lake Austin dam. Miller paid constant and persistent attention to the developing system of dams along the Colorado River and to the acquisition of Public Works Administration support; thus he deserves much of the credit for the protection of the city from flood losses. With the assistance of Democratic party friends in Washington-such as President Roosevelt, Congressman James Paul Buchanan, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, and Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson and through prolonged negotiations with the Lower Colorado River Authority, construction of the Lake Austin dam became a reality. By a vote of the Austin Chamber of Commerce the dam was called unofficially the Tom Miller Dam in recognition of Miller's efforts to bring about the successful completion of the project.

Miller extended to black citizens of Austin the opportunity to participate in the planning of civic affairs years before such participation became the norm. Some black civic leaders gained membership on city boards and obtained improvements such as additions to recreation facilities. Though by current standards these gains seem small, in the 1930s they were of some consequence. Mayor Tom Miller presided over the evolution of Austin from a small town to an urban center. Many of the policies he initiated continued to benefit Austin long after he left office. With greenbelts and parks enhancing the city's quality of life, with Interstate Highway 35 and Mopac Expressway supplying traffic arteries (the results of Miller's promotions), and with prosperous businesses growing, Austin became a metropolis-in which the impact of Mayor Tom Miller was still manifest in many areas of city life. Tom Miller died on April 30, 1962, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Austin. On May 6, 1967, a bronze bust of Miller was unveiled and dedicated by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Austin American, May 1, 1962. Floylee Hunter Hemphill, Mayor Tom Miller and the First Year of the New Deal in Austin, Texas (M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1976). Vertical Files, Austin History Center.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Floylee Hunter Hemphill Goldberger, “Miller, Robert Thomas,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 09, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 19, 2019