Pat Miller ate insects with Jay Leno, kept the ashes of Gloria Steinem's final cigarette, and after 35 years, produced one of the country's most successful lecture series ... all on only five hours of sleep a night.
Nineteen hours after a lecture on polar bears and 18 hours after a lecture on the Arab Spring, Pat Miller slowly leans in and squints at the computer in front of her.
She could be examining a number of different things. Potentially finalizing details of one of the over 120 speakers she helps bring into the lecture series each school year as director of the Lectures Program. Or she may be making sure the cookies she ordered for the first livestream of the first presidential debate will be in the Great Hall on time.
“People have no idea how much goes into these lectures,” Miller said.
It’s 2 p.m. on a Friday. There are no lectures for the next 77 hours, a rare break for the lecture series but far from a break for herself.
Miller sits in her office at her desk across the hall from the post office in the Memorial Union.
Her office isn’t big or elegant by any means, but the character it displays is obvious. A far cry from the English faculty office she started out in over 35 years ago.
When Miller took over the lecture program within a year of graduating from Iowa State, 38 lectures filled the calendar. Three and half decades later, that number has more than tripled.
The history of those decades fill the shelves.
Miller gets up from her seat and moves to the back of the office to examine some pictures. She stumbles across a picture from 1984 of herself and Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon, social activist, writer, editor and champion of women's rights.
“I forgot I had that,” Miller said while examining the picture. “We were both much younger then.”
The '80s are represented in Miller’s office by a glass bottle holding the cigarette ashes of Steinem. Steinem was trying to quit smoking when she spoke at Iowa State in October of 1984. Miller gave Steinem a ride back to her hotel when Steinem knocked off the ashes of her cigarette into the ashtray in Miller’s van.
Miller said those ashes were part of the last cigarette Steinem ever smoked. Thirty-two years later, the ashes are preserved on Miller’s shelf and might be seen by Steinem when she returns to Iowa State on Oct. 11.
The '90s are represented in Miller’s office by a Willie Nelson poster, from when he performed at the football stadium, hiding behind a bookshelf.
“What’s the date say on the poster?” Miller asks, having returned to her chair.
April 24, 1993.
‘He’s great,” Miller responds before going into specific detail about her encounter with the country singer more than 23 years earlier.
The 2000s are highlighted by getting Bill Nye the Science Guy to venture to campus.
The five years of phone calls, hand-written invitations and emails to get Nye to easily fill Stephens Auditorium to maximum capacity were worth it, but not the longest amount of time Miller has spent recruiting talented speakers.
Steinem most recently came to Iowa State in 1997. It took 19 years of persistence to get her back for her lecture “My Life on the Road” this October.
Miller’s office is filled with unique memories from her past. It took 25 years to get Margaret Atwood to finally come in November.
A replica of Miller’s thumb is on a shelf next to Leonardo Dicaprio’s “pee bottle” from the movie “The Aviator.”
Next to the picture with Steinem in the back of her office is a picture from "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno. Miller pitched an idea of eating chocolate-dipped, crispy crickets to the show and the next thing she knew, she was flying out to California with the presidents of the Entomology Club.
Leno walked around the audience handing out the insects.
Miller said everyone in the audience ate one.
Tony Bennett was a guest on the show that night. He turned down Miller’s offer.
“Now why would I want to have any job other than this one,” Miller said, laughing to herself about "The Tonight Show" experience.
Within the first five minutes of the interview leading to this story, Miller’s computer alerted her of a new email three separate times.
After an hour of telling stories, Miller said the interview should wrap up soon. She had to write two invitations to potential speakers, and by this point, at least 15 emails to read.
After all, getting eight presidential candidates to speak at Iowa State didn’t just happen by itself. It takes effort. Like averaging five hours of sleep for the past 35 years, kind of effort.
Miller doesn’t set an alarm in the morning but consistently wakes up between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. to begin her day.
She has to constantly recruit new speakers to come to Iowa State in the same day she’s making sure the lecturers who are speaking that night are completely taken care of.
“It’s like a Rubik's Cube,” Miller said.
She usually ends her day by doing what she calls “the lecturers happy dance” discretely by the door after everything wraps up with a lecture, often after 10 p.m.
“People don’t appreciate how good she is at her job,” said Greer Brown, a senior on the Committee on Lectures as well as national and world affairs. “She’s always thinking about what’s best for the students.”
Miller is good enough at her job to have what she believes to be one of the best lecture series in the entire country.
Brown spent the first year and a half in college enrolled at Iowa, where she said she saw one lecturer and was standing during it.
Most colleges have between six to eight lectures a year.
“We always say [those colleges are] wusses,” Miller said.
The lectures series at Iowa State has topped out at 177 lecturers in a year.
Those hundreds of lecturers a year translate to hundreds of stories from people who have made their mark on this world. In 35 years, Miller has heard thousands of impactful stories and met thousands of impactful people.
“I have to write a book,” Miller said. “Maybe I’ll do it in my spare time. Between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.”