Who knew this guy loved opera?

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 6 2015 1:03 a.m. MDT

Larry H. Miller (Tom Smart, Dnews) Larry H. Miller (Tom Smart, Dnews)

"After all, you know this guy," the well-known ad slogan reads. But did you really?

Unless you attended the Utah Festival Opera in Logan this summer, you'd likely be surprised to find out that the festival owes a big part of its existence to Utah sportsman Larry H. Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz, Miller Motorsports Park, 41 car dealerships, movie theaters and more.

Miller's donations to the festival, worth millions of dollars, were usually made anonymously, with Miller saying "we're blessed enough to be part of this."

Only on the most recent contribution, the renovation of the festival's theater, did Miller tell festival organizers: "If having our names associated (with the festival) would be helpful, then you are welcome to use them."

Utah Festival Opera founder Michael Ballam and Gail Miller, widow of Larry H. Miller, share some memories. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah Festival Opera founder Michael Ballam and Gail Miller, widow of Larry H. Miller, share some memories. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

This summer, with pre-show speeches, followed by appreciative applause from audiences, UFO founder Michael Ballam dedicated the season to Miller, who died Feb. 20 from complications of type 2 diabetes.

At the EnergySolutions Arena this fall, months after UFO ended its season, Michael Ballam and Larry Miller's wife of 44 years, Gail, agreed to meet to talk about the unlikely opera/Jazzman partnership.

"It's an interesting story," Gail Miller said, after getting a hug and an early birthday present from Ballam, "He never forgets a birthday," she said.

"I used to go to Education Week (at Brigham Young University), and I tried for years to get Larry to go," she said.

"She strong-armed him," Ballam chimed in.

Larry H. Miller (Scott G. Winterton, All) Larry H. Miller (Scott G. Winterton, All)

"Finally," she continued, "he got tired of me nagging him, and I said, 'You've got to hear Michael.' I knew it was something Larry would love. They have similar feelings; they're both tender. …"

"We both cry over a good breakfast," Ballam joked.

Gail Miller laughed with Ballam at the comment, acknowledging Larry Miller's trademark tears.

"At the conference, Michael did an evening of Irving Berlin — as patriotic as you get. And Larry is so patriotic. As soon as he heard the first note, he said, 'I've got to meet him.' "

Ballam was scheduled for a book signing the following day and the Millers went. "He wanted to see him while it was on his mind," she said, then added, chuckling, "When we got there, he said, 'I'm not standing in that line.' "

Michael Ballam and Gail Miller talk recently about Larry H. Miller's commitment to the opera organization.   (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Michael Ballam and Gail Miller talk recently about Larry H. Miller's commitment to the opera organization. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Instead, he called. Ballam said, "Our secretary said, 'Larry Miller is on the phone.' Well, we have three Larry Millers in Cache County, and I thought, 'I'll call him, I'll call him.' Then she said, 'No … Larry H. Miller.' I called him instantly and said, 'Is this Larry H. Miller, my hero?' He chuckled and said, 'That was supposed to be my line.' "

Ballam continued, "He said, 'I'm coming up to Logan, and I want to meet you and I want you to tell me what you're doing.' Well, if that wasn't music to somebody's ears.

"I told him, my vision is not about opera or musical theater," Ballam said. "It's about blessing the community and the children."

"Michael's vision is something that spoke to Larry," Gail Miller added.

"Larry," Ballam continued, "told me to make a list of our needs and to put them in order." That list included housing for visiting artists, a production facility and an endowment fund that could guarantee future income.

"I have no idea how he remembered everything. He didn't take any notes," Ballam said.

"He has an intense concentration ability," Gail Miller added, "and when he focuses, nothing else is in the room."

"And nobody could remember numbers like Larry," Ballam remembered. "He could do amortization rates and figure profit margins in his head. It was amazing — an incredible gift."

That summer, the Millers attended their first opera in Logan. "I was afraid he had fallen asleep because he didn't move a muscle," Ballam said.

"At intermission, I scurried down there, and his shirt was wet from tears. I said, 'I know it's a sad story, but not until Act II.' He said, 'Story! What story, they're singing in Spanish or something. I couldn't take my eyes off of them.' Then he said something I'll never forget, 'That soprano, every time she goes for a high note, it's a three-pointer!' "

After Ballam answered Larry Miller's questions about what goes into a production of that caliber, "He said, 'Every child in the state needs to see excellence at this level. How can I help you?' "

A few months later, on a dark January night, Larry Miller brought "90 or so of his closet friends to Logan," Ballam said, "I should have known something was up."

"He said, 'We're gonna blow Michael's mind tonight,' " Gail Miller added, smiling as she remembered her husband as he hung up the phone, "He loved planning surprises like that."

That night, they had dinner, enjoyed a brief performance and an explanation of dreams for UFO. At the evening's end, Larry Miller handed Ballam the keys to a 64-unit apartment complex.

"Do you know why he brought so many friends?" Gail Miller asked, her eyes wet remembering that evening. "They were the people who made it possible to support Michael. Managers, staff and colleagues."

"This is when I saw Larry for who he really was," Ballam said. "He got all choked up and turned to his friends and said, 'It's because of the hard work of each of you that has enabled me to have the resources to do this. So this gift is from you.' Not many CEOs do that."

Miller's generosity did not stop with the apartment complex. A short time later, standing in the dilapidated Dansante building, close to being condemned, the Millers listened to Ballam's vision for the "perfect building." "I took my plans to Larry and they totaled 45,000 square feet — the building was only 20,000. But Larry, not one to yield to limitations, said, 'Let's go for it.' "

In 1997, the Millers gave UFO its "perfect building."

"He was interested in preserving humanity and keeping it on the right track," Gail Miller added, "and anything he could do to enrich and unite families and keep the family unit together, keep community strong — that's what he was interested in."

"He told me once when he thought about letting the Jazz disappear, 'People carry their heads higher when the Jazz are in town,' " Ballam said.

"When he bought the team it wasn't because he loved basketball so much he needed to have it," Gail Miller said. "He was worried if the team left, Salt Lake wouldn't get another one. And they're too important to the community."

"I remember him going through all the figures in his head," she said, "then he looked up and said, 'I think we can do this.' He was that way with everything: 'If there is a way, I'm gonna' do it.' After he bought the team, he gave it to the community. He said, 'This is your team.' "

Larry Miller's love for his community stretched far beyond donations and the NBA. "There were times where he would take time to help," Gail Miller said.

There was the time in a parking lot where a man had a flat tire, she remembered. "He walked up and asked if he needed help," she said, noting the gentleman, who was from out of town, had no idea of Larry Miller's identity. "Larry arranged for someone to take him down to the dealership and he paid to have the tired fixed."

She also said that during snowstorms, "he liked to take out the Land Cruiser and help people who were stuck. He loved doing things like that."

"Things like that" also included a top-of-the-line ballpark he had built for a branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "He made sure it had the right kind of barbecue pits, the right kind of dirt in the infield, the right kind of bathrooms."

Ballam added, "and he'd offer advice. He'd drop anything to work me into his schedule. He'd have the basketball commissioner on one phone and Mr. Eccles on the other, and he'd motion for me to come in. Then he'd focus like this," Ballam said, demonstrating Miller's habit of looking up to a spot on the wall. "It was like he went some place else."

As the two reminisced, sharing tears and friendly pats on the arm, it was clear that more than just music came out of the opera founder/Jazzman connection — "not just a friendship, a deep love," Gail Miller said.

"The loss of my dad and Larry in such a short space. …" Ballam's voice trailed off, filled with emotion.

Ballam sang the hymn, "How Great Thou Art," at Miller's funeral, "and it was a supreme honor for me. Larry was the strongest person I knew. It never occurred to me he might actually die."

"I knew it was close," Gail Miller said of her husband's death, her chin quivering and voice shaky. "He was ready. If anybody can orchestrate their own death beautifully, he did."

Both Gail Miller and Ballam wiped at tears as Gail continued. "When he was told he wouldn't recover, he said, 'OK, we'll do this in two steps — we'll take care of family and we'll take care of work." Work took about an hour and a half, then he took care of family. "We had a sleepover," she said, with five children and 23 grandchildren. "The doors were open, we watched videos, he was aware of it, and he died surrounded by family at home."

"We really were a team, though it took me a long time to realize it and a lot of convincing from him," she said. "He'd always discuss things with me. Neither one of us coveted money … so it isn't hard to give it away.

"When you have money, you have to pick and choose carefully where the most goodwill come," she added, "You have to be on guard all the time, that what you do with it is righteous."

Gail Miller paused in memory, taking a deep breath. "After Larry died, I realized it would be very easy to be a hermit — to be a rich widow, to do whatever I wanted. But you can't do that. You have to walk in the footsteps that have been laid out.

"Which is not hard for me personally, because we were totally aligned in our desires. It's making sure we don't mess up what he's created."

"How do you thank Larry Miller?" Ballam asked. "I can't total the millions he gave us. How does the community thank him?"

"You don't," Gail Miller responded. "You pay it forward."

e-mail: ehansen@desnews.com

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