Before her resume included titles such as award-winning author, senior editor for Simply Recipes and contributor for Rachael Ray Every Day, Summer Miller was a columnist at The Reader.
“It was the mid-90s, and I was writing classified ad sales for The Reader,” Miller said. “Eventually, I found my way into working on some of our more serious stories. It wasn’t glamorous. Sometimes it was really gritty, even. It didn’t matter; I just wanted to be there.”
Working among some of The Reader’s first rebel writers, Miller remembers it as a time when they swore too often, worked too much and had the freedom to develop as writers and researchers.
At the time, Miller said, the Omaha World-Herald had one culture page. “The Reader was able to really fill this void and have this niche spot all to ourselves. We were there sometimes all night to get our stories to print on time, and then back at it first thing in the morning. It was really hard work, and we loved it.”
“We thought swearing a lot made us these renegades and helped drive our point,” she said. “It didn’t, but we were all just so hungry and passionate about getting deep into the stories we were telling. Some of the things we were covering were really heavy. We eventually learned to let the reality of what was going on in Omaha speak for itself.”
Working among such passionate people fueled Miller through those long nights, and she and the team became more than co-workers. “Some of my most treasured friendships were born in that time,” she said. “Working with those people was such a gift!”
As she and her comrades continued to develop their skills as writers, Miller found the faith in her that John Heaston, The Reader’s long-time publisher, had push her well beyond her comfort zone, including requesting police reports and records from city officials.
“He was just so matter-of-fact in what he was asking me to do,” Miller said. “He didn’t think for one moment anyone but me would think I was in over my head.”
“That’s the power of John Heaston,” Miller added. “He comes to you with no ego and casually asks you to do the impossible. Finds the talent in you and finds a way to polish it into something powerful for the community.”
The Man, The Myth, The Mentor
While Heaston would cringe at that headline, he has built a reputation for cultivating talent. “He makes you believe that bettering yourself and pushing yourself as a writer gives you the chance to really be part of something big. Our paper was small, but telling the stories nobody else was telling? That was big!”
Miller called Heaston a grower of people and ideas and said his team does its best to work as feverish conduits for the one-man brainstorm that Heaston personifies.
“I was always proud to be part of something John was excited about. If it was something that had Heaston fired up, even if we didn’t understand it or understand why right away, we were eager to learn about it and put together something strong.”
Summer Starts a New Season
Miller chased the feeling of doing work that mattered. When she stopped telling other people’s stories and started spending some time on a story of her own, she found herself on the other side of the world.
“I finally stepped away from my editor-in-chief position at The Reader in 2006 and decided to take some time to travel. I ended up in South Africa working in humanitarian aid, explored for a while, got married and started a family.”
Miller’s drive to make a difference soon had her name back on bylines.
“When I’d been back home for a while, I reached out to John again. I was in transition, just leaving freelancing and living in Elkhorn with my family. I told John I wanted to write something about area farmers and seasonal foods. He went for it right away, and I started writing Seasonal Eater. Having worked for The Reader for so long, I already knew that anything we published was about getting to the heart of the story. Even a food article would be about the community and would serve to advance it.”
When her drive to enrich that community finally took over entirely, Miller put her effort into New Prairie Kitchen, her love letter to local fare. The book shares more than beautiful photos of local foods and farmers. The pages contain the stories of Midwest chefs, growers and artisans in rich detail. Miller finds the heart behind the comfort classics at local eatery favorites and underscores the community’s contribution to our country’s culinary scene.
Heaston used his pages to promote her book, offering his endorsement before New Prairie Kitchen was available to the public.
“That’s John,” Miller said. “When he gets behind an idea, he’s full steam ahead. It’s an incredibly powerful thing to know that your words have his approval. I’m always thankful for my time at The Reader, and to John for the lessons he gave me.”