Tying the Knot: Embracing the unexpected

Tying the Knot: Embracing the unexpected
Tom and Bonnie Miller on vacation in Utah in 2016.(Courtesy photo)

By Allison Hageman | ahageman@alextimes.com

Long before Ferris Bueller did it, Tom Miller skipped class and went to a baseball game in Chicago with – unbeknown to him – his future wife.

It was 1965, and Tom’s family had an annual tradition of going to the opening day of the Chicago White Sox season. A junior in high school, Tom was prepared to skip class with a note from his father saying his grandmother had died – she hadn’t – tickets, transportation and a friend who was tagging along. That is until his friend “chickened out” at the last minute.

Suddenly left with a spare ticket, Tom made an impulsive decision, one that ended up changing his life.

“And on the spur of the moment, I turned to this really pretty girl who sat next to me and I said, ‘Do you want to go?’ and she said, ‘Sure, why not!’” Tom said.

That girl, from his class, was Bonnie Miller, his future wife.

“I got in trouble because I didn’t have a note from my father saying that my grandmother died,” Bonnie laughed.

At the time Bonnie was dating someone else, but after the game, she and Tom became friends and eventually, by senior year, the friendship developed into a romance.

Following their dreams, the Millers both decided to go to college at the University of Michigan, Bonnie said. At the time, Tom’s father criticized the decision and told him, “‘You’re just following your girlfriend. It’s not going to amount to anything.’” Bonnie’s parents had always wanted her to go to University of Michigan or another Big 10 school.

“In high school and then in college we were always together,” Bonnie said. “He was a super hard worker. There’d be times where I want[ed] to go out and have fun and he’d be studying.”

The Millers got married in 1969 while they were in college. Tom described their proposal and wedding as “anticlimactic.” (Courtesy photo)

By junior year at Michigan, they decided to get married, and it was “anticlimactic,” according to Tom. One day they were talking, and he just turned to Bonnie and said, “Let’s get married now.”

At that time, it was normal to wait until you graduated to get married, they said.

“I said we can’t do that, nobody does that,” Bonnie said.

“And I said, ‘Big deal,’” Tom added.

Once they got married at age 20 in 1969, they were on their own financially. They stayed in Ann Arbor, Michigan near the University of Michigan, as Bonnie got her master’s degree in social work and then began her career as a social worker and Tom got a master’s and Ph.D. in political science.

“It was cool to be poor then,” Bonnie laughed. “It was the 60s.”

After Tom completed his Ph.D., he passed the State Department exam, they had their children Julie and Eric and in 1979, the family traveled overseas to their first posting in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Tom’s Thailand post began his 29-year career as a diplomat, most notably as the U.S. ambassador to Greece and Bosnia and a Cyprus negotiator.

Tom, Bonnie and their two children, Julie and Eric, in Thailand. (Courtesy Photo)

“Bonnie and I always had a deal that she would have a big say in our overseas assignments,” Tom said.

Both Bonnie and Tom are career-focused and passionate, striving to make an impact wherever their careers take them. In their many travels, Bonnie has focused her work on sex trafficking, education and social work, even winning the Avis Bohlen State Department Award in 2003.

“Foreign service is not all cocktail parties. It’s dangerous, and we saw this several times,” Tom, reflecting on friends he lost abroad, said.

Of all the places they lived and worked abroad, Greece and Bosnia were the most impactful for them. Bosnia was life-changing, Bonnie said, and they “met a lot of good-hearted people” there. After three tours totaling nine years, Greece became “like a second home,” according to Tom. The couple still has friends in Greece and visit twice a year; they plan to visit again this summer.

In the 29 years Tom worked in foreign service, Tom and Bonnie only lived in the U.S. for one month. That month happened to be September 2001, and by October, they again moved abroad to Greece.

Their numerous experiences abroad have helped them develop together as people and partners.

“We grew together. We were kind of unformed entities, and, you know, [we went] to the same college and then … I followed him to places and then toward the end, in Bosnia and

Tom and Bonnie in Santorini, Greece in 2012. Tom was formerly the U.S. Ambassador to Greece, and they consider it a second home. (Courtesy photo)

Greece, there was a lot professionally to cooperate on,” Bonnie said.

Besides professional cooperation, Tom and Bonnie also built their 56-year relationship and 52-year marriage on caring, respect and open communication, they said.

They are in their 70s now but are still active. Tom is a chairman at Intralot and chair of the board of the International Commission on Missing Persons. Bonnie is an international conflict resolution trainer at Columbia University.

“We figured by the time we hit 70 we would kind of both retire. [It] didn’t quite work out that way,” Tom said.

They have owned a townhouse in Old Town since around 2005, but shortly after purchasing it, they moved to the U.K. In 2009, they began to live in Old Town full-time – with a lot of travel in between, according to Tom. In those 11 years, both of their kids have gotten married, had children and made the Millers happy grandparents.

During the pandemic, they have also stayed busy with work. In their free time, Tom and Bonnie enjoy taking walks in Old Town, visiting their grandkids, listening and sometimes contributing to podcasts and watching movies. They have also kept in touch with friends locally, nationally and abroad over Zoom.

The Miller family in 2018. Tom and Bonnie have enjoyed spending time with their grandkids during the pandemic. (Courtesy photo)

As of November 2020, the Millers have a new Old Town home: the house across the street from their previous one in Chatham Square. They converted part of their garage and basement into a gym so they could work out daily. The house is a museum full of memories, with artwork from Bosnia, Greece, Thailand and other places where they have lived hanging on the walls.

The pandemic has put a damper on their travel plans. Although they have upcoming trips scheduled for as soon as May, they both acknowledge the trip is likely to get canceled. But they are not worried – Tom and Bonnie know that life can often take them in unexpected directions.

From the moment Bonnie said, “Why not! I’ll go to the game,” their life together has been defined by the unexpected. If Tom’s friend had gone with him to the baseball game, Tom thinks he and Bonnie might not have gotten together.

“Our feeling is to make the most of [life], be open to all kinds of new opportunities … [and] have a good reason for saying ‘No,’” Tom said.