Although Larry H. Miller started as an obscure man with no recognition, by his death in 2009, his name had become one of the most recognized in Utah—and his wife, Gail, was with him until the very end. When her husband died, the widowed billionaire was faced with a choice: continue building what they had created together or sell the business and move on. She chose to continue with the business, and today she is a bright light of faith and service in the world of business. Yet, she had humble beginnings.
By Small and Simple Things
Many of us can quote Alma 37:6 by heart: “By small and simple things are great things brought to pass.” Despite her vast holdings now, “simple things” are exactly what helped Gail Miller get her start.
Gail as a teenager, 1960
Believe it or not, Gail grew up making her own clothes out of hand-me-down dresses and saving pennies by making her own dress patterns out of newspaper. As one of nine children born to her parents during and shortly after the Great Depression, Gail was raised by a father who was a shoemaker and salesman and by a stay-at-home mom. She remembers occasions when they had only one lightbulb that would be moved from room to room as needed. “My parents struggled to feed, clothe, and educate us,” Gail remembers, “and I learned quickly that if I needed something, I’d have to figure how to get it on my own. I learned how to become a problem solver.”
Those problem-solving and do-it-yourself skills served Gail well, and she still values them: “Being poor wasn’t a detriment to me. You don’t have to have stuff—you just have to have what’s inside of you. My mother was a master at teaching her children, ‘You are of worth. You are a child of God. The glory of God is intelligence. Cleanliness is next to godliness.’ Those kinds of lessons were deeply instilled in me. It wasn’t what we had that was important; it was what we were that was valuable. And that became my foundation. It has served me well all through my life.”
Today, Gail continues to work hard. And no matter what the situation, she tries to maintain the perspective of her childhood. When people ask her what she would buy with the money she now has, she’s quick to sincerely reply, “I’m content with what I have. It’s not that I have everything, but I’m happy because I don’t have a lot of needs. I’ve tried to keep that level of consistency in my life— to not want a lot of worldly things. That’s not where success is, in my opinion. Success is like a report card if you work hard, but it’s not the reward for working hard. The reward for working hard is what you learn and can share with others.”
One of the personal rewards that Gail shares with others is her testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But it wasn’t always that way. A variety of circumstances actually led her and Larry to start their married life together as inactive members of the Church.
Larry’s parents, who had been very active members during his childhood, asked to be excommunicated when Larry was 16. Larry was left with a small group of LDS friends who helped him stay active, but he had little support or encouragement from home to serve a mission, leading him to decide it wasn’t something he could do.
Gail started out as a very involved member of the Young Women sports programs. However, after she graduated from high school, started working, and began dating Larry, church attendance slowly fell out of the picture. She explains: “I didn’t have any disaffection and didn’t lose my testimony. Neither one of us did. We just became inactive because my job often required me to work on weekends and Larry played softball on weekends or went to tournaments. So we just let it fall onto the backburner.”
The two were married and eventually moved to Colorado, where life continued, with Gail raising the two children they had at the time and Larry working and playing competitive softball. That is, until one day, their then-5-year-old son, Greg, asked Gail an important question: “Mommy, where does God live?” Gail was taken aback. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I have just taken for granted that these kids will have a testimony and that they’ll know about the Church.’”
Roger, Larry, Greg, Gail holding Bryan, Steve, and Karen Miller, taken in 1979.
That same day, she tracked down the phone numbers of local wards until she found the Primary president of the ward where they lived. The Primary leader quickly invited the Miller children to weekday activities and introduced Gail to others in the ward.
Gail remembers the good feelings she had as she embraced her forgotten religion and became more involved with Relief Society. “When I went to the ward and became acquainted with the women, it felt like coming home. I felt comfortable, and it touched something in me that had not been alive for a long time.”
Gail remembers a particularly poignant turning point in her journey back to church. A new convert was attending Relief Society, and it was the first time Gail had ever interacted with someone who had been through the conversion process. It touched Gail, and she shares: “What it did for me was make me realize that the church I had grown up with was really special. If somebody outside could see what the Church was all about and want to embrace it and I already had it—it reinforced to me that this was right and I was doing the right thing.”
Although Gail quickly recognized that church was where she wanted to be, at that time, Larry didn’t want to give up his weekend softball games. With the help of a couples’ dinner hosted by the Relief Society, the persistent love of home teachers, and a welcoming elders quorum president, Larry began returning to activity. He and Gail eventually set a date to be sealed in the temple: their 15th wedding anniversary.
Despite their spiritual progress, however, challenges arose because, as Gail puts it, “Satan always puts obstacles in front of you.” Even as church activity was becoming part of their lives again, challenges from other areas were being put on their plates. While these things may be discouraging to some people, Gail says that she and Larry “recognized that what [we] had in the Church was the loving arms of the gospel around [us] to help us deal with the difficulties.” In fact, Gail’s advice to anyone returning to activity is, “Don’t do it for anybody else. Do it for you, because if there’s something inside you telling you that this is the right thing or that you have a void that you need filled, that’s reason enough to go back. There’s no need for embarrassment; there’s no need for feeling lost or feeling awkward. It’s a place of love. And it’s a place people will embrace you and help you find your way.”
Growth and a Sacred Stewardship
When Gail and Larry were sealed in the temple, the officiator said that he felt impressed to tell them that their name would be known by thousands. Although this was confusing for them at the time, when the opportunity to purchase their first car dealership came and their business ventures slowly began expanding, the Millers started to understand what they had been told.
What began as one dealership quickly became two, three, four, and five. Later they became co-owners of the Utah Jazz basketball team, erected community buildings, and founded their own chain of movie theaters, among other accomplishments.
While Larry was managing a lot of their temporal growth, Gail was experiencing a lot of spiritual growth serving as the ward Relief Society president. She had an opportunity to help many people and particularly enjoyed the small acts of service she was able to perform for sisters who were homebound, from organizing cleaning parties to cutting hair. “You can make a difference with little things,” Gail says, “and I think Heavenly Father expects [women] to use our talents to bless and serve each other. . . . He didn’t leave this all up to the men. He created Adam and Eve, and we have to remember that we are following the strength of Eve as we use what we are given to do good things.”
As Gail and Larry continued to grow in the various areas of their life together, they also started to feel they had a special responsibility. “The blessing for us that came through [returning to] church was that we recognized that we had been given a stewardship, and as long as we took care of that stewardship and magnified our callings, the Lord would give us more because He could trust us. He could trust us to do what was right with it and share with those around us.” For Gail, that trust includes keeping the proper perspective on success and passing it along to her children. She shares: “My life is very different from the way I grew up. I’ve never forgotten how I grew up and the sacrifices that my parents made, and I think my perspective on success is still the same; I think you make your own success, and you make your own happiness. You can’t rely on others to make you happy. It has to come from within.”
Becoming a Businesswoman
Gail never intended to enter the business world her husband lived in, but she would often spend hours listening to him talk about it. “I loved being a mom and a housewife, and I loved the fact that [Larry] was willing to let me,” she says. But she also gives an insight into the shared life she and Larry created: “One of Larry’s favorite ways to relax after work, particularly later in our marriage, was to soak in our yellow bathtub and download his day to me. I would sit next to the tub on the floor, and we would talk about everything that was happening in the business. Larry included me in every aspect of his professional life.”
When Larry died of complications from diabetes in 2009, Gail had to decide whether to become more involved in the business and continue what she and Larry had built together or to sell it and pursue her own interests. When it came down to it, Gail felt the latter alternative was too selfish. So she (along with her sons, who had also been well trained and instructed by Larry) used all the knowledge she had gained from Larry’s daily “downloads,” as well as her own personal experience, to continue providing employment and promoting high values and standards for thousands of employees.
Zane, Gail, Stacey, and Finley Miller at the Jazz Note unveiling, September 26, 2017.
But being a businesswoman—especially a Latter-day Saint one—isn’t always easy. “Being a prominent woman in business is very challenging because it is a man’s world, and even though I don’t actually run the company, I do oversee it, and I choose to follow the standards that Larry and I set, the values we espoused, and continue to do the things that we wanted to do in the community,” she says. Gail works to make her voice heard and believes that women can make a valuable contribution wherever they are. “I really think Heavenly Father has given women an opportunity to make the world a better place because we have a different kind of strength than men have,” she says. “It’s very important to represent yourself as an LDS woman—don’t ever be ashamed of that. There are so many good things about our church and so many valuable lessons you learn as you go through life because of the teachings of the Church.”
According to Gail, however, the most important thing to remember is that “there is a higher power always watching over you and ready to help you. Day in and day out, be consistent with your efforts. If you have a goal and you want to get there, you have to do something about it. You have to make a plan and then day after day after day adhere to your plan.”
Gail and Kim, November 2012
After losing Larry and integrating herself into the business world, the thought of remarrying never crossed Gail’s mind—until a neighbor named Kim Wilson asked her on a date. She had known Kim for years and had even spent time with Kim’s family, helping when their house burned down (twice!) and when Kim’s wife, Vicky, passed away a year and a half after Larry died, also from complications of diabetes. When Kim started asking her out, Gail resisted at first. “I said, ‘You know, I’m really not interested in getting married, so if you’re looking for a wife, you need to go date other women. I have everything I need.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Well, yes, you do, but what about companionship?’ and I thought, ‘Oh, yes, there is that one thing.’” They ultimately decided to continue dating and were married for time in the Bountiful Utah Temple a year later, with President M. Russell Ballard performing the ceremony.
Although Kim is different from Larry in many ways, Gail believes that is a blessing. However, Gail also acknowledges that a decision of this kind is very personal and circumstances may be different for others. She says, “I don’t know that I could give advice except to be true to yourself. Don’t [remarry] on the rebound. There’s no urgency about it and, you know, Kim and I are both sealed to our first spouses. We recognize that, and we talk about them a lot—sometimes we joke about maybe having dinner together when we get on the other side.”
Although Gail’s life has rarely followed the path she imagined it would, she is grateful for the life experiences that have brought her to where she is today.
“My life is really good. I’m very blessed. Even through the trials and the hardships, I recognize I’ve had so many blessings [I] can’t count them all. . . . I’m grateful for the gospel in my life, and I don’t know where I’d be without it—probably out there floundering. But I’m not floundering, and it definitely is a pathway that I can recommend.”
Photos courtesy of Gail Miller