Local Obituaries

Sue Miller, who raised millions for United Way and elevated philanthropy, dies at 81

Sue Miller (right) shared a laugh in Dec. 2004 with her daughter Leslie Miller Saiontz, at the announcement ceremony that Miller would be donating $100 million dollars to the University of Miami School of Medicine in honor of her late husband, Leonard Miller of Lennar Corp. fame.
Sue Miller (right) shared a laugh in Dec. 2004 with her daughter Leslie Miller Saiontz, at the announcement ceremony that Miller would be donating $100 million dollars to the University of Miami School of Medicine in honor of her late husband, Leonard Miller of Lennar Corp. fame. Miami Herald file

Sue Miller thought she had found her niche, selling homes for Lennar Corp., the development company co-founded by her husband Leonard.

This was 1982 and Miller answered the phone at her Star Island home in Miami Beach. On the other end, a representative from the charity United Way. Miller had already been a volunteer, but could she help captain a campaign in Miami Beach, too?

Could she?

Miller, who died Thursday morning of complications from brain cancer at 81, not only could volunteer while selling homes and raising three children, but she could elevate the whole concept of philanthropy to an art form.

“Sue has been a 40-year volunteer at United Way. She started by literally walking door to door on Miami Beach, inviting people to give money to United Way,” said Claudia Grillo, chief operating officer of United Way of Miami-Dade. “She parlayed that into building what we think is widely recognized in the worldwide United Way system as the premier major giving program at a United Way. That is certainly what she did for us.”

Accent on the “major giving.” Before Miller took up the cause, the standard gift to United Way was a $5 deduction from one’s paycheck toward the charity. “The idea of making a large gift was unheard of,” Grillo said.

Before Miller, the Tocqueville program, made up of donors who contribute at least $10,000 to Miami-Dade’s United Way each year, didn’t exist.

Miller told her colleagues at United Way, including president Harve Mogul, “$10,000 is not enough. I want million-dollar gifts,” Grillo recalled.

“And she, again, was the driving force creating the Million Dollar Roundtable, for donors of over $1 million in Miami. We have 67 million-dollar contributors and that is all owing to her courage and moxie, if you will, of never taking ‘No’ for an answer,” Grillo said.

Some people are the names that stay forever in the growth of a city. She is one of the people that I love. People that give back. Gracious, with class and pride to be a Miamian.

Emilio Estefan on philanthropist Sue Miller, and her late husband, Leonard.

“She works the crowd as well as anybody I know,” David Lawrence Jr., former publisher of the Miami Herald, said of Miller in 2002. At the time, Miller, and late husband Leonard, were honored by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce with its Sand in My Shoes award, the chamber’s highest honor for outstanding community service.

Gloria and Emilio Estefan, pop music celebrities who know a thing or two about working the crowds, opened their home to their neighbors, the Millers, for fund-raising events for United Way.

“I would deal with her so many times with fundraisers and she was always ready to help. This is a big loss for our city,” Emilio Estefan said. He was always struck by the grace and class the couple displayed and how they passed these traits down to their three children.

For instance, son Stuart Miller, CEO of Lennar, was a chairman of the University of Miami Board of Trustees and served many organizations, including Alonzo Mourning Charities and the Overtown Youth Center.

Daughter Leslie Miller Saiontz chairs the board of Teach For America Miami-Dade and worked alongside her mother in the United Way’s Women’s Leadership, a group her mother founded in 2001 with 300 members. Women’s Leadership, a volunteer and advocacy group, with donors who pledge $1,000 or more annually to United Way, has grown to more than 1,000 members.

Son Jeffrey Miller chairs Breakthrough Miami, an academic enrichment program for nearly 1,000 motivated students from underserved communities.

“Such incredible people,” Estefan said. “The whole family is like that. They are gracious. They give back. They treat everybody so well it doesn’t matter who you are and that’s what I loved about her and her husband. Their kids have to be so proud of their parents. They leave an incredible legacy of success and the growth of Miami.

“We’ve all got to go in the long run and it’s what you leave,” Estefan said. “If everyone comes in with that purpose in life to do something for someone else, they have done that. Their family will continue to do that.”

Miller, who was also on the board of the Council for Educational Change, an organization founded by her husband, once explained how she came to hone her talents.

“You have to develop a passion,” Miller said in a 2012 Miami Herald story on the evolution of giving. Her brand of philanthropy leaned to large-scale, long-term and all in the family. In addition to helping raise more than $130 million for the United Way over the past 35 years, and numerous other South Florida causes including health and arts groups, her family in 2004 contributed $100 million to the University of Miami School of Medicine, resulting in the medical school being renamed to the Miller School of Medicine. In 2015, the family added another $55 million for a new medical education building.

“You have to have a passion for your organization or whatever you’re trying to stimulate in the community. And once you develop that passion, it becomes second nature,” Miller said.

Miller’s skillful giving was a hallmark of her character.

“Sue Miller was passionate about education. She … believed that engaging business executives to partner with school leaders created a winning team to step up to the plate to improve public schools. For the past 14 years she kept the leadership legacy of her husband, Leonard Miller, alive through the Council. Through her support and guidance, she touched the lives of over one and a half million students and school leaders. She was the moving force and heart of our organization, an excellent mentor, and my true friend,” said Elaine Liftin, president of The Council for Educational Change.

Said Lawrence, now chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida: “She loved people, loved life, gave so much in so many ways to so many people. She loved America and Israel — and, in fact, was the single best guide I ever had in Israel. She was the matriarch of giving in a hugely charitable family.”

The entire Miller family received the Tocqueville Award for Outstanding Philanthropy from Miami-Dade United Way in 2015. Miller and her husband, who died in July 2002 of liver cancer, received the award in 1996. Sue Miller received the national Tocqueville award in 2012.

“I had conversations with her so many times about how proud and in awe she was of her children and what they are doing in our community, all in their own way to make this a better place for all the people who live in Miami-Dade,” Grillo said.

She also identified advocacy as an important part of our endeavor…advocating for increasing support for high quality early education access. That’s an example of not necessarily raising money but taking action, using your voice, standing up.

Claudia Grillo, COO of United Way of Miami-Dade.

Miller, raised in Brockton, Massachusetts, was born on June 5, 1935, to parents who owned small hotels in New Hampshire. She married Leonard Miller in 1955, the year he graduated from Harvard, and the couple moved to Miami. Leonard joined F&R, a home building firm, and met Arnold Rosen, one of the partners, with whom he would create Lennar Corp. by joining their names.

The company, with an initial $10,000 in capital, became the largest homebuilder in Florida. Today it is a Fortune 500 company and one of the nation’s leading homebuilders. Philanthropy became a byproduct.

“What drove her was how fortunate she felt for herself and for her family and that amazing work done by Leonard to build Lennar. This was not only an opportunity to give back but their obligation. They simply had to level the playing field by supporting not only with dollars but with their energy and their work with nonprofits,” Grillo said.

At United Way’s Miami office on Southwest Third Avenue, Miller maintained an office and had her own parking space. Like an employee.

“But she treated our team like we were her family,” Grillo said. “She knew everybody’s name and everyone’s children and when it was a holiday she didn’t show up with a gift for that staff person. She showed up with a gift for the staff person and all of their kids.”

Best friend. Confidante. Mother figure.

Miller lived by the motto of her favorite quote, given by Golda Meir, the late Israeli prime minister:

Trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.

Services will be at noon Sunday at Temple Beth Sholom, 4144 Chase Ave., Miami Beach. Donations can be made to the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami.

Sue Miller is also survived by 11 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and her sister Jean.

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