On Jan. 30, 1940, two extraordinary Hawkeyes sat down at a table with a radio microphone between them and history ahead of them. One of the students would go on to become an accomplished journalist, presidential biographer, and early voice for the gay rights movement. The other was an All-American football player and student-body president who became an Iowa icon after his death during World War II.
On that winter afternoon, Merle Miller interviewed Nile Kinnick (40BA) at the campus radio station—a unique convergence of two ambitious undergraduates and rising stars at the University of Iowa. Miller was an editor for The Daily Iowan, where he wrote a column for the student newspaper called “Around the Town.” He also worked as a radio host for WSUI, which in those days was housed in the university’s engineering building.
Kinnick, meanwhile, was fresh off a glory-filled senior season and making the rounds nationally to accept nearly every major football award. A month earlier, he had delivered his famous Heisman acceptance speech that still resonates decades later and echoes across Kinnick Stadium before every Hawkeye home game.
Although fans today have heard that rousing Heisman speech more times than they can count, few have heard Kinnick’s voice beyond those 1939 remarks at the podium at the Downtown Athletic Club. The Internet is filled with plenty of silent film strips of the Cornbelt Comet galloping between defenders and portraits of a dapper Kinnick striking a pose in his leather helmet. But few if any other recordings of Kinnick speaking are readily accessible.
That’s what makes the Miller-Kinnick interview extraordinary: It offers a window into Kinnick’s passion for football and education, his gentlemanly but folksy demeanor, and the rhetorical skills which made him such a popular speaker. The 15-minute radio show is preserved in UI Libraries’ Special Collections as part of its Kinnick archive. The two discussed the topic of football’s role in education, with Miller asking Kinnick to explain why carrying a pigskin was more than “just a game of brawn.”
A few months after the interview, Kinnick graduated with his degree from the College of Commerce and delivered his class’ commencement speech. Miller, meanwhile, had a rockier end to his college career, failing to graduate after refusing to take the ROTC and swim courses required in those days.
Miller, a Montour, Iowa, native, would go on to study for a year at the London School of Economics, serve in the Army during World War II, and work as editor for a military magazine called Yank. Over the course of his career, he was an editor at Time and Harper’s magazines, wrote best-selling biographies on presidents Truman and Johnson, and authored almost a dozen books. In 1971, he wrote a poignant and widely read essay for the New York Times Magazine about being gay in the U.S., which he later adapted into a book titled On Being Different that was influential in the gay rights movement. Miller died in 1986 at age 67 in Brewster, New York.