ST. PETERSBURG — Over 36 years at Boca Ciega High School, Herbert Miller taught math to more than 10,000 students.
He walked through math problems calmly, talking about functions and variables as if he were recounting his travels.
If you didn't understand it one way, he would explain it another way until you did. If you flunked a test, you could take it again until you passed.
He handled disruptive students with a quip rather than a bark.
Current and former students recognized him at the store, in traffic, at the movies.
"It was always, 'Hey, Mr. Miller!' wherever we went," said Anita Nagel, 37, Mr. Miller's niece.
Mr. Miller, who also chaired the math department at Boca Ciega, died Monday of a heart attack. He was 69.
His father dabbled in several trades — among them shrimp fishing, real estate and bootlegging, according to Mr. Miller's brother, William — and died when Mr. Miller was 9. Mr. Miller never became an outdoorsman like his father. But by the time he reached St. Petersburg High School, he blossomed into a ladies' man, black hair swooped back in an Elvis-like pompadour.
"He was gorgeous," said Barbara Gipson, 70, a friend of 60 years. "The girls loved him."
He never married, but indulged his nieces as if they were his own. He took them on long car trips and rewarded them with $20 for every "A" grade. He remained a constant presence at family gatherings and a neutral corner in any dispute.
Sometimes he had to duck out of those gatherings to prepare for class. He went to bed early and was up by 3:30 or 4 a.m. He expected students to pull their weight.
"He valued the kids who were struggling and just couldn't make the grade," Nagel said.
He tried to keep up with their music, learning all the words to songs such as Tina Turner's What's Love Got To Do With It? and Prince's When Doves Cry.
In his leisure time, he tended to orchids, researched his family's genealogy and read any of a dozen rotating magazines he subscribed to throughout his life, from National Geographic to Better Homes and Gardens. He also read widely about religions but did not evangelize any one of them.
In the summers, Mr. Miller traveled to the places he had read about, especially Europe and South America. He crowded his shelves with artifacts from those trips, such as Aztec replicas and enough photographs to fill 30 albums.
"His home was his sanctuary," said Kendall Murphy, 45, a friend and former student. "When people came to visit, he couldn't wait for them to leave."
He logged his expenses in green notebooks. His mother, Anita, trained him in childhood to record every dollar.
"I have ledgers from the last seven years," Nagel said. "It's almost like a diary. I know what he was doing that whole time."
He cared for his mother through her dementia and decline. Sometimes he took her to the beach, pushing her wheelchair over the sand. She thought she lived on a cruise ship. He played along.
Mr. Miller suffered a massive heart attack in October and never fully recovered. In the last day of his life, as family members stood near Mr. Miller's bed at Edward White Hospital, someone mentioned his teaching career at Boca Ciega.
Linda Bowen, an intensive care nurse who was in the room, was startled by the remark. Bowen, 48, was a sophomore at Boca Ciega in 1977 and had taken geometry. Suddenly she recognized the man on the bed she had not seen in 32 years.
"Wow," Bowen said. "He taught me math."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.