On the day Larry H. Miller "retired" from teaching at Brigham Young University, Ned Hill entered the classroom to express his appreciation.
He did so by singing a song, with original lyrics set to the tune of "O Christmas Tree."
It was all in good fun, and the fact that Miller was one of the state's most prominent residents and that Hill was dean of the Marriott School of Management didn't seem to matter. Hill was just grateful for Miller, who drove to Provo multiple times a week for several years to help teach a marketing course.
"What a treasure to have someone like Larry Miller and to see him giving back to students," Hill said.
Miller, 64, died Feb. 20 due to complications from type 2 diabetes. Since his passing, the man who owned 39 auto dealerships, a motor sports park and an NBA franchise has been remembered as an influential entrepreneur and humanitarian who left an imprint on his home state of Utah. But within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that mark encompasses more than just cars and basketball.
For the past eight years, a financial endowment created by Miller and his wife, Gail, has facilitated the expansion of the Joseph Smith Papers, a division of the Church History Department that over the next two decades will publish all available documents produced or owned by the church founder. A number of full-time staff members work on the project because of the Millers' involvement.
"He was a friend to Joseph, a friend to the project, a friend to me personally," said Ronald Esplin, managing editor of the Joseph Smith Papers. "As busy as he was, he always made time for things he felt were important, like this project."
During a press conference on the day of Miller's death, Greg Miller listed the Joseph Smith Papers as one his father's philanthropic efforts that would continue. According to Esplin, Miller became familiar with the project when he visited the Church History Department with a friend who had been called on a mission to Kirtland, Ohio. After viewing some of the documents from the archives, Miller gained an appreciation of their significance.
"It literally changed his life," Esplin said. "He came out of that meeting a changed man."
The convergence of several other experiences led to Miller feeling "directed" to the project, Esplin said. For example, Miller, who often gave firesides but never on the subject of Joseph Smith, found himself inspired on several occasions at the last minute to speak about the Prophet. "How many coincidences does it take before it's not a coincidence?" Esplin remembers Miller saying.
Esplin said Miller considered himself a "bridge-builder" who, once he had the means, looked for opportunities to help individuals with sound ideas get started.
"It's a very important part of how he views his life's work," Esplin said.
The Joseph Smith Papers fit that criteria, but the project had additional meaning for Miller. According to Esplin, Miller was "deeply moved" when he heard a Mormon Tabernacle Choir arrangement of the W.W. Phelps hymn "Praise to the Man" that emphasized the verse "millions shall know 'Brother Joseph' again."
"It helped him to just feel emotionally again that he's doing what he can to help that happen one day," Esplin said.
Miller was also interested in film, and not just as the owner of several movie theaters. He funded the production of multiple LDS films, most notably "The Work and the Glory" trilogy based on Elder Gerald N. Lund's nine-part book series. Miller was the executive producer on the project and very invested in seeing it completed.
Lois Blackburn, head of public relations at Excel Entertainment, worked with Miller on the third film, "A House Divided," which was released in 2006. She said he wanted to make his own positive contribution.
"It was never about the money for Larry," Blackburn said.
Miller, who loved the books and said he empathized with some of the characters, approached the author in 1995 with the idea to turn the books into a movie.
David Monson was at one time the general manager of Miller's movie distribution company, Vineyard Distribution, and said Miller spent several million dollars on "The Work and the Glory" project.
Because Miller cared so much about the films, he was disappointed when they weren't as successful as he had hoped.
"The fact is, we don't really know why they didn't perform better," Monson said. "I think they were wonderful productions."
Church-owned BYU also had a friend in Miller. His family's contributions helped fund the construction of an innovative athletic complex, where the Cougar baseball team plays on Larry H. Miller Field opposite the softball team, which plays on Gail Miller Field.
"At BYU we have benefited enormously from Larry's interest in and support of the university, as well as his financial contributions," BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson said in a statement. "We are grateful to have the Miller name prominently displayed on our campus at Miller Park. … "
President Samuelson also pointed out the time Miller spent instructing students on the Provo campus. Miller team-taught the class with Keith Hunt, a friend and BYU professor, supplementing the principles with practical applications.
"It was a splendid class. Students absolutely loved it," Hill said. "He was always a fascinating teacher. Larry would come in and add his reality. It was one of the most popular marketing classes in BYU history, I'm sure."
Similar to his contributions at BYU, Miller's investment in the Joseph Smith Papers included time as well as finances. He attended meetings, joined the scholars in important discussions, initiated the KJZZ TV series on the project and emphasized teamwork. In 2006, Miller financed a church history trip for Joseph Smith Papers staff members and their spouses.
"Larry wanted to add this other twist, that we have a team and we want the team to know and love one another, and we want the spouses to be part of the team," Esplin said.
Miller's most high-profile team, however, has always been the Jazz, and his position as an NBA owner put his faith in the spotlight on several occasions during the playoffs. Miller drew national attention when he chose to stay away from the arena when games were played on Sundays. It happened during the Jazz's appearance in the NBA Finals, and once again last May when Utah hosted the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals at EnergySolutions Arena. ESPN.com writer Gene Wojciechowski joined Miller for a drive in the canyons while the game was being played and wrote about the experience.
Christopher Jones became friends with Miller when their families lived in the Littleton, Colo., 2nd Ward, where Jones served as elders quorum president. They used to attend Denver Nuggets games with another friend, and Jones laughed while recounting a conversation the three once had.
"I can just remember him saying, 'Someday guys, I'd love to own an NBA team,' " Jones said. "And we said, 'So would we, Larry.' "
Jones said they once tried to organize a ward softball team with Miller, who was a pitcher for a Toyota dealership's fastpitch team. It didn't work out, however.
"Nobody could catch Larry," Jones said. "He threw the ball so hard, he was afraid of hurting people."
Miller, who was a member of the Emigration 4th Ward in Salt Lake City at the time of his death, served in various church capacities throughout his life. He worked with youths as a teacher's quorum adviser and served twice as a high councilor, which was his most recent calling. He was also an elders quorum counselor, elders quorum president, gospel doctrine instructor and Sunday School teacher.
Emigration 4th Ward Bishop William O. Kimball described Miller as a "devoted member," even in the midst of increasing health challenges.
"If he could be (at church), he was there," Bishop Kimball said. "It was pretty amazing."
Jones, who used to watch basketball with Miller but is also a church history enthusiast, appreciates that Miller's legacy will live on through the Jazz and the Joseph Smith Papers.
"I had huge respect for Larry," Jones said. "He was always super-genuine, and he just treated everyone the same.
"There will never be another one like him."