First published in the Dec. 30 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.
Going down in local lore as the only two-year president of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association may have begun as a dubious honor, but President and Chairman of the Board Bob Miller has embraced leading the charge through turbulent times.
Though he was named leader of the 2021 Tournament of Roses for what is traditionally a one-year position, the coronavirus pandemic upended all conventions upon the iconic parade and game’s cancellation, and volunteer positions were rolled over an additional year. Miller, now overseeing the 133rd Rose Parade, 108th Rose Bowl and 103rd Royal Court, observes the extended term as a unique experience offering just as much opportunity as challenge. After pulling the plug on the Tournament’s annual events — a decision that did not come lightly — the nonprofit organization shifted gears to enhance community outreach.
“We took it as an opportunity to increase our position, our presence and our obligations to the community,” Miller said in a recent interview, reflecting on his term. “We spent a considerable amount of time with our volunteers investing in and supporting food insecurity, technology insecurity, and in some cases, transportation insecurity. We fed and we delivered well over 40,000 meals to the community. We worked extensively with education, which was tied directly to our theme.”
The lifelong educator and his wife, Barbara, chose the theme “Dream. Believe. Achieve.” As passionate advocates for higher education and its ability to open doors, minds and change lives, the theme is a nod to the need for closing gaps in social mobility through education, Miller noted.
“Education is the great equalizer,” he said. “Education is the single greatest determinant of social and economic mobility. And increasingly, the challenges are tied to those who have and those who have not. And the only way for those on the lower end of the economic and social continuum to change those circumstances is through a quality public education, and specifically, an accessible, equitable and inclusive quality public education.”
Professionally, Miller has been a community college educator, administrator and consultant for more than 40 years and only retired in 2019 to provide fulltime service to the Tournament of Roses. In his last position, Miller served as vice chancellor for Finance and Resource Development for the Los Angeles Community College District, the largest community college district in the country serving 245,000 students annually through nine colleges. Previously, he also worked in the Pasadena Area Community College District, where he served in several positions including interim superintendent/president of Pasadena City College.
Perhaps it was this combination of financial acumen and educational advocacy that best prepared Miller for what no one could foresee: two years of unprecedented, cascading events spurred by a highly contagious virus that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. The Tournament commissioned a study in 2020 through Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California as to the feasibility of holding the parade and game amid the pandemic, keeping the public’s safety at the forefront of the decision. Miller and the executive committee were also acutely aware of the financial risk looming at the prospect of cancellation, and knew they had to make the decision at least six months in advance to cut losses for the Tournament, participants and providers alike.
“It was like looking into a crystal ball with this notion of all the unknowns the virus presented, and still presents,” Miller recalled. “We tried to maximize public health and safety, minimize the association’s and other entities’ financial risk and loss, and at the same time, protect our reserves and balance sheet to ensure the parade and game would be around another 133 years. Ultimately, I think we mitigated incurring greater loss for all involved and I feel good about that decision process.”
Upon cancellation, the Tournament pivoted to a virtual program and then, dug down to help the community at large, which was hurting. Some were facing death, prolonged illness and financial ruin, exacerbated by social and racial disparities. Miller said in the aftermath surrounding the heightened awareness of police killings of people of color, the Tournament reflected on its own commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the community. It spearheaded the “Better Together” initiative for improved community engagement, which is still underway.
“We’ve made a lot of progress, but we still have more to go; we continue to work on that,” he added, noting that the discussion of diversity, equity and inclusion will likely play a larger role in the Tournament’s next strategic planning process. “We’re actively working to make certain that our organization is representative of and providing opportunities for all people and ages. We’re being very intentional these days about how we move leadership along and work toward becoming a part of our community and part of the solutions, not part of the problems.”
There might, at some point, be reflection on whether the Tournament opens its Royal Court to all genders or those identifying as different genders and sexualities, he noted. Though it does not abide by any official policy regarding the topic, Miller said there is recognition that “we begin asking the question, how to be more inclusive? … Are we willing to have a court that is both female and male? We have evolved to the point of recognizing we need to at least interrogate the question and talk about it and think about it and go from there.”
Miller has been a volunteer member of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association since 1984. He was appointed a tournament chair in 2002 and a tournament director in 2007. Throughout his extensive Tournament career, he has served on and chaired various committees including Float Construction, Float Entries, Post Parade and University Entertainment.
As part of his duties as president, Miller focused on securing the marching bands to perform on Jan. 1, a challenging task due to some of the Herculean efforts being made by bands to practice and recite remotely, as well as fundraise remotely, during the social isolation necessary under COVID. Ultimately, 19 bands of the original 23 are scheduled to perform. Though the international bands had to cancel due to travel restrictions and hardships, there will be a special float saluting America’s band directors. The animated float stretches more than 60 feet and leads a 300-member band comprising retired and current school band directors from all 50 states and Mexico. It’s a tribute to music education and is called “We teach music. We teach life.”
“Teaching music is teaching about teamwork, discipline, time management, critical thinking and work ethic; it’s teaching all these skills that go with these students forever and become transferable life skills. Teaching music truly is teaching life, and that’s why bands are such a significant part of our parade,” he said.
The parade will also honor all the pandemic “heroes,” Miller said, all the healthcare professionals, essential workers, first responders and scientists “who sacrificed and cared for us through the very worst, and at great personal cost.”
And above all, the parade will represent the strength, perseverance and resolve of those participating and watching from around the world.
“This parade has become an incredible rallying point and an opportunity for healing and giving,” Miller said. “It’s an incredible tool for healing and hope; our parade and game represent the very best of what our country is all about. It represents the very best of how we as a nation every year celebrate new beginnings. It’s important for us to dream, to believe and achieve, to show people that everybody can have a piece of the American dream.”