Clad in a charcoal gray suit, Harold T. Miller sat in his 30th-floor office at One Beacon St. in 1988, in the twilight of his 17-year tenure as chief executive of Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston’s storied publishing firm.
“We don’t refer to ourselves as a book publisher,” he told the Globe that day, a time when consolidations were roiling the publishing field. “Our mission is to find, develop, and manage intellectual ideas.”
To many in the city’s corporate and literary communities, Mr. Miller was a steward of Boston’s intellectual soul as he rose through the ranks and then led Houghton Mifflin, whose history stretched from the 1800s, when it published essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, to the late 20th century, as publishing began to transcend the printed page.
“You try to live by a philosophy: Do the best damn job you can every day,” Mr. Miller said, adding that “when you live in this environment, you learn to get on with the job.”
Increasing annual sales from $83 million at the outset of his leadership to more than $400 million at his exit was but one measure of his impact as a legendary chief executive. Mr. Miller, who in retirement completed two books that trace the history of Houghton Mifflin and US publishing in the 20th century, died of congestive heart failure Christmas Day in his Lincoln home. He was 89.
His military service during World War II and a graduate course in Gestalt psychology at Columbia University Teachers College after the war largely formed his approach to leadership.
“Gestalt says the sum is greater than the individual parts,” he said in a 2010 interview published on the university’s website. “It may sound cliché, but that became my bible as a CEO.”
As a Navy lieutenant, Mr. Miller was part of the early assault of the battle of Iwo Jima and other invasions in the Pacific theater, and he applied lessons he learned then to the corporate world.
“He talked about how when you’re in the military, the first thing you do is take care of your people, and then you take care of yourself, which is completely different from how many people are today,” said Bob Baron, founder of Fulcrum Publishing in Denver, which published Mr. Miller’s 2003 book, “Publishing, A Leap from Mind to Mind.”
A second book that collects interviews Mr. Miller conducted while writing “Mind to Mind” is scheduled to be published this year.
“To me, Hal was always this incredible intellectual presence, but also a very human presence,” said Anita Silvey, a writer and editor who formerly was in charge of children’s books at Houghton Mifflin. “There was such an amazing integrity to Hal in the way he looked at things.”
Mr. Miller sought “books that had the unique factor, singular books,” Silvey said. “He said you didn’t look to what anybody else was publishing. You were hunting for those individual, quality-content books. That was really his philosophy.”
The older of two children, Mr. Miller grew up in the small community of New Paltz, N.Y., where he initially attended a one-room schoolhouse.
Sports scholarships took him to Central College in Pella, Iowa, which he left after his freshman year during World War II. The military sent him to train at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and after serving in the Navy, he met Marcheta Novak while spending time in San Francisco.
They married in her hometown of Howells, Neb., in 1947, the year he graduated from Franklin & Marshall with a bachelor’s degree. He went to Columbia for a master’s degree and was teaching at a New Jersey high school when he was recruited into the publishing field.
Mr. Miller began his 40-year career at Houghton Mifflin selling text books in Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania.
“Not long after I joined HM as a sales rep, I was at a dinner in San Antonio, and the school superintendent there said to me, ‘You know, Miller, we’re in the same business – educating kids,” Mr. Miller told Columbia University in 2010. “And I always regarded it that way.”
As leader of Houghton Mifflin, Mr. Miller established the company as a significant player in the elementary, high school, and college textbook and standardized testing fields, while still attracting noted authors and editors in other areas.
Ed Kelly, now sales manager in the higher education group of Harvard Business Publishing, formerly worked at Houghton Mifflin, where with an almost presidential gravitas Mr. Miller “could get in front of an audience and give a masterful speech without a note.”
Kelly, who was among those at Houghton who considered Mr. Miller a mentor, recalled that “he had more confidence in me than I had in myself. For me, he was my super hero. I considered him a luminary.”
In 1990, when Mr. Miller retired from Houghton Mifflin, he was named chief executive of the year by Northeastern University’s College of Business Administration for his corporate and community achievements. The business college’s board was one of many he served on or chaired through the years.
“He was a wonderful thinker,” said David P. Boyd, a former dean of the business school who now is a professor of management and organizational development.
“The world is such a complicated place, and full of such discord,” Boyd said. “Hal had the ability to rapidly find the takeaway in a sea of data. He could dive down and say, ‘This is the important thing.’ He was very good at making sense of it all.”
A service will be announced for Mr. Miller, who in addition to his wife leaves a son, Hal of Houston; a sister, Judith Pedersen of New Paltz, N.Y.; and three grandchildren.
Robust all his life from his rural youth and days as an athlete, Mr. Miller liked to travel with his son and other companions to distant destinations.
“We went fishing or hunting almost annually,” his son said. “We would go fly-fishing in Alaska, Chile, Bolivia, several places in Canada.”
On those journeys “there was a common denominator that cut across all his activities and it was enthusiasm,” Boyd said. “Even on the fishing trips to Alaska there were soul-filled talks and intellectual discussions.”
And yet Mr. Miller was happy to shake off the life of the mind when he retreated to a farm he bought in Vermont, where he traded boardrooms for mowing fields atop his John Deere tractor.
John Burt, a New Hampshire state representative from Goffstown, formerly ran an arborist business in Vermont and worked for Mr. Miller years ago.
“He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty,” Burt said. “If there was wood to be split and I was splitting it for him, he’d get right in there and start lugging wood. He had a chainsaw and wasn’t afraid to use it.”