Visionary helps realize a greener future

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 29, 2008 - 12:22 AM

James G. Miles, an engineer, lawyer, inventor and author who years ago predicted taxpayers would shoulder huge public debt, is fulfilling his dream of turning his farm into a public park.

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James Miles, 87, and his wife, Laura, in their Deephaven home.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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James G. Miles saw it coming.

A visionary who helped found the Control Data Corporation and Children's Hospital, Miles has long warned of the rising public debt. He first sounded the alarm 14 years ago in his book, "Five Trillion Dollars and Ever Deeper in Debt," in which he worried about a nation that was borrowing against future generations.

Since Miles' first predictions, the national debt has indeed mushroomed -- in fact, it's doubled to $10 trillion. And now, the government has stepped in with a $700 billion rescue plan for the financial markets, amid the mortgage foreclosure crisis and credit crunch that threaten the economy.

Miles, who ran for Minnesota governor as an independent against Wendell Anderson, has been unable to speak more than a few words since a stroke and attendant brain injury from a fall left him partially paralyzed a few years ago. Still, his words ring out in his three published books and memoirs, and through those who know him well.

Miles, 87, is someone who commands attention, in his quiet and dignified way. He's had numerous patents in his name, including those that have helped advance technology in huge ways, from airplane safety to computers.

He's led fundraising efforts for the building of Children's Hospital. Among priorities he still pushes is the need to shape up the nation's finances. The national debt, he wrote, hits middle-class taxpayers and those on fixed incomes especially hard.

"He's always been a visionary," said his wife, Laura Miles, who with son Henry helped articulate Jim Miles' views in a recent interview in the elder Miles' Deephaven home.

His family said Jim Miles would be horrified at today's economic tailspin and lack of regulation. In his 1994 book, he proposed a new tax on wealth as part of his plan to reduce the federal debt and annual deficits to zero in six to 10 years. His "net-worth tax law" would apply to all households with a net worth of more than $150,000, which now, 14 years later, would be set higher.

He also predicted the growing need for mass transit. And he helped develop and sell the first computers, convincing hesitant business leaders the world over that they were the way of the future.

Miles was ahead of his time, too, in predicting the public's need for "green space." He long spoke of his desire to someday have his farm along the Vermillion River become public park land in Dakota County. Most of that 456 acres is being restored to oak savannahs and prairie grass as the new Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Aquatic and Wildlife Management Area.

Jim had purchased the farm in Farmington decades ago as a place to relax, even while he dug postholes and planted crops. He was getting back in touch with his Nebraska roots, said Laura Miles. He worked with the University of Minnesota to develop corn that yielded 166 bushels per acre at the farm, Laura said.

"But Jim's real dream for the farm was to one day have it taken out of production and turned back into a natural area for public use," she said.

After his stroke, the family worked with the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservation group, to sell the land at a deep discount. The Miles family said the green space will have hiking and biking trails and a way for the public to better access the Vermillion River, which runs for a mile through the heart of the farm. It's one of two metro trout streams in the nation.

The land is now part of 4,000 acres of open space called Vermillion Highlands in Dakota County.

A 'mosaic of experiences'

Jim Miles grew up in Lincoln, Neb. His father practiced law and his mother taught art at the University of Nebraska, where Jim earned two degrees in electrical enineering.

He worked at a number of companies on emerging technology, and at Bendix he developed an engine analyzer that could determine whether parts of the engine were going to fail. It was used in one of the most famous airplanes in the world, the "Spruce Goose," which Howard Hughes designed near the end of World War II and flew just once. The giant wooden plane led to modern big-capacity aircraft.

During World War II, Miles also helped develop radar, an acronym for Radio Detection and Ranging. He realized that the pulse and timing techniques of radar could be extended to the evolving digital computers, Miles wrote in his unpublished memoirs.

He was part of the top-secret U.S. Navy outfit that used the name "Engineering Research Associates" as they worked in St. Paul to crack German codes. In a tiny laboratory, Miles studied the characteristics of magnetic mediums for the storage of digital information, and he soon became a pioneer in computer technology.

After marrying Laura Haverstock in 1949, he studied law, worked for a string of firms and was part of a small group that in 1957 left to form Control Data, which would grow into a supercomputer firm making some of the world's fastest computers.

Miles was approached years later to lead the board of Children's Hospital. He and Dr. Arnold Anderson visited children's hospitals across the country. Though some other hospitals didn't want a facility just for kids, he recognized that a hospital had to be built to serve children's needs.

At the start, during a cash-flow crunch, Miles pledged his entire net worth to keeping the hospital going, said Alan Naylor, who served as the hospital's banker. Today, the hospital has greatly expanded.

In 1974, just before President Nixon resigned, Miles ran for governor of Minnesota as an independent against Wendell Anderson, with Laura as his running mate. He walked from one end of the state to the other, talking to people about concerns.

What makes Jim Miles tick? Said Son Henry Miles:

"I think it was this mosaic of experiences in his life, and the fact that he was a risk-taker, and he always took them. He was absolutely not fearful. He never worried about personally putting himself at risk."

Joy Powell • 612-673-7750

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