Bob Miller was 17 and his Barbara was 15 when their eyes met over the decoration of a Rose Parade float.
They were there with their church group, five decades or so after the day Bob and Barbara wanted to think it was a sign.
Miller will end his term as president and chairman of the board of the Tournament of Roses Association on January 20 with his wife by his side.
For two years, he was the go-to guy for an institution in Pasadena that was rooted in traditions and threatened by the uncertainty of a pandemic. One year, the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl did not take place at all.
But Miller, 935 volunteers, a Rose Queen and her court, as well as thousands of vendors and builders completed the 133rd Rose Parade and 108th Rose Bowl game in light of a record-breaking increase in COVID-19 cases.
Miller said he has spent the days since responding to about 400 congratulatory texts, messages and social media posts.
“It was a work of love, and I believe with all my heart that this is what our country needed,” he said. “The Rose Parade and the game is known as the United States New Year’s celebration, and this year it was not just a new beginning, but a healthy new beginning. It was a much-needed gift.”
When he was named president of the Tournament of Roses in January 2020, Miller chose the theme “Dream, Believe, Achieve”, not knowing that the three admonitions would be challenged in the two years before the parade and game could return.
In a normal year, the tournament president has four main tasks: selecting a theme, selecting bands, appointing a grand marshal, and serving as an ambassador for the nonprofit organization around the country. Miller’s first year was used by the business and administrative functions to lead the association through unprecedented, pandemic-scarred times.
The parade arrived amid a winter wave that sent Los Angeles County’s new daily volumes to record levels, driven by the highly transferable omicron variant.
Tournament and local public health and safety officials acknowledged the inherent risks of gathering for the parade and the Rose Bowl game, but planners said they relied on a feasibility study from the USC Keck School of Medicine and closely aligned with the county’s public health protection.
In the end, the crowds were visibly smaller than during a pre-pandemic year – but that was probably expected because parade officials, city councilors and public health experts warned high-risk residents to stay home (and urged people attending to make sure they were vaccinated and wore face masks).
“Public health and safety was our North Star, health and safety for everyone from staff and volunteers to salesmen and builders,” he said.
The decision to launch the Rose activities may have heralded yet another such dilemma on the horizon. On Thursday, on the heels of the announcement of 37,215 new COVID cases across the county, County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer promised to work with NFL and SoFi Stadium officials to prevent Inglewood’s Super Bowl move away in February. “I feel really confident that the event will take place here in LA,” she said.
But Miller’s role involved much more than the overriding public health problems.
His other significant task, perhaps even more complex, was to minimize the financial risk and loss of the events.
In 2021, with the parade on the sidelines, Miller helped produce a TV special about the annual tradition. Although it could not replace the parade, it held the march’s legacy in the eyes of the public on a January 1 morning without live floats, bands or royal court.
Miller also increased community involvement through the Better Together initiative. Volunteers helped distribute food and contributed to campaigns addressing inequalities in technology and education.
When the parade and game were back, Miller spent the next many months performing a president’s more traditional duties. He and Barbara visited every single band on the parade list.
“From that moment on, I met people, made presentations and shared that excitement with bands,” he said. “We felt an obligation to ensure that this happened, to show the strength, resilience and endurance of our society and our country, while complying with the requirements of health and safety.”
Miller, a teacher, administrator and consultant in community college for 44 years, was working at Pasadena City College when he was nominated for membership in the association.
“From the first year (in 1984) I was hooked, from the societal involvement aspect to the magic of delivering something that entertained millions every year,” he said.
As the parade approached, more and more twists and turns came as sustained rain permeated the Bandfest and Equestfest events. But the participants rolled on, as promised – “rain or shine.”
This culmination of Miller’s two-year period was without a doubt New Year’s Day, a wonderful and surreal 24 hours, he said.
The sun shone, the bands marched, the rafts dazzled, the horses trotted; the parade started and ended on time, like a clockwork, without incident. And the game was an entertaining, nail-biting cliffhanger.
“The biggest pinch-me moment was walking down the parade route in the fire truck with my wife, our kids and four grandchildren and my 91-year-old mother when I saw the excitement of the hundreds of thousands of spectators on Colorado Boulevard, it was pretty amazing, said Miller. “The second pinch-me moment was to present the Leishman Trophy to (Buckeyes) coach Ryan Day and the Ohio State football team. And everything in between. I could not have been more pleased with the way the parade and game went.”
Next year, Miller will still be a tournament volunteer and head the football committee for a period before becoming honorary director. At the time, he would mark 52 years of service in the Tournament of Roses.
“It’s about service, right?” he said, pondering his life’s work in the association, but also in the field of education.
“Success is being at the service of your community and your family, striving to help others and being happy,” Miller said. “I spent my life supporting higher education and helping people achieve.”
The result of this year’s Rose Parade and Rose Bowl, meanwhile, is that people are being reminded that a return to life and a certain hint of normality is possible. Miller said it was a sign that everything will be fine.
“It has been the greatest honor for me, for my wife and for our family to have had this opportunity to be a part of this parade and the game,” he said.
Anissa V. Rivera, columnist, “Mom’s the Word,” Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News, Azusa Herald, Glendora Press and West Covina Highlander, San Dimas / La Verne Highlander. Southern California News Group, 605 E. Huntington Drive, Suite 100, Monrovia, CA 91016. 626-497-4869.