Arjay Miller, Ford Motor Co. 'Whiz Kid' who helped save a failing auto company, dies at 101

Arjay Miller, one of the Ford Motor Co. “Whiz Kids” who helped turn around a failing automaker with a push for greater safety and later championed inclusion and social justice as dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, has died at 101.

Miller was fresh from the Army Air Forces when he joined up with nine fellow World War II veterans to offer themselves up — as a team and a team only — to Ford, which was reportedly losing money at a rate of $1 million a day and hadn’t turned a profit in a decade and a half.

It was 1946 and Henry Ford II, the grandson of the auto company’s legendary founder, was new to the job and “searching for answers” to resuscitate the firm he’d inherited when he received a telegram from Charles B. “Tex” Thornton, an ambitious colonel who wrote that he and nine buddies were willing to help Ford get back on track.

With little left to lose, Ford hired all 10.

At first the brash newcomers were derisively known as the “Quiz Kids” for their incessant questioning of company practices, accounting and direction. But that label was tossed aside as the company’s fortunes began to turn around. Over the years, six of the “Whiz Kids” would go on to be presidents or vice presidents in the firm. One member, Robert McNamara, became U.S. secretary of Defense after his stint as president of Ford.

Miller, who became Ford’s president in 1963, was an early advocate of increased safety for motorists, a point of view that was sharpened one evening when he was driving home from work at the company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. His Continental was hit from behind by another driver, spun out of control and burst into flames on the highway. He was able to scramble to safety.

“I still have burning in my mind an image of that gas tank on fire,” he told a U.S. Senate subcommittee months later when he testified about the pressing need for improved safety features in America’s fleet of automobiles. He specifically pointed to the potentially fatal problem of fuel-fed fires in cars that rolled over or were involved in crashes.

Miller also oversaw the arrival of one of the company’s signature vehicles — the Mustang. It was Ford’s most successful launch since the Model A.

In 1969, Miller was named dean of Stanford’s graduate school for business students in what turned out to be an era of remarkable growth. Endowments increased, as did the number of endowed chairs. The graduate school became more diverse and the number of women attending the school increased, as Miller preached that business leaders should become more socially and civically involved.

“Making money is the easy part — making the world a better place is the hard part,” he told students and fellow academics.

Born in tiny Shelby, Neb., Miller grew up in a farming family and came west to attend UCLA, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. His graduate work at UC Berkeley was interrupted by the war.

At the time of his death Nov. 3, he was living in Woodside, not far from the Stanford campus.

He is survived by a daughter, Ann; a son, Ken; three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Frances, his wife of 70 years, died in 2010.

steve.marble@latimes.com

Twitter: @stephenmarble

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