ST. PETE BEACH — Irwin Miller had a gardener. But that didn't stop him from weeding or raking leaves into his 80s, wearing an old pair of khaki shorts and Birkenstock sandals with socks. Mr. Miller took pride in the H-shaped home he built 40 years ago on Vina Del Mar. It's where his grandchildren came to play marathon board games, fish on the dock and put on skits for the adults.
Those skits — little plays they dreamed up — often included impersonations of Mr. Miller. Especially his unmistakable, high-pitched laugh.
Watching the hilarity, one might not deduce that the man they called Papa was a heavy hitter in St. Petersburg's Jewish community whose philanthropy and hard work helped build Temple Beth-El and Menorah Manor.
Mr. Miller, a hotel owner and developer who changed social landscapes, died Saturday after suffering a stroke. He was 84.
"People like him don't pop up every day," said friend Betty Sembler, who traveled several continents with her husband, foreign ambassador and Baywalk developer Mel Sembler, and the Millers. "He had respect for people, and people had respect for him."
Mr. Miller was an infant when his father, Jacob Miller, moved his family to St. Petersburg. In 1928, Jacob Miller helped found Temple Beth-El, the city's first congregation for Reform Jews.
"Through the years there were few Jewish families here," said Sonya Miller, Mr. Miller's wife. "My husband's family began to develop what is known as the Jewish community here."
So did hers. Her father, Leon Haliczer, helped establish Congregation B'nai Israel, of the Conservative Jewish worshippers. The families knew each other, but she did not know Mr. Miller well when he asked her out in 1946.
She refused him. "I had to study for a test," she said. "Thank God he asked me out again."
They married in 1948 and lived near the Rellim — "Miller" spelled backwards — a hotel just south of the Don CeSar, bought by Mr. Miller's father seven years earlier as a refuge from discrimination.
At that time, some hotels had posted signs reading, "Gentiles only wanted" and similar messages. Mr. Miller started out making salads for guests, many of whom were repeat seasonal customers from the Northeast. The hotel served three meals a day and offered live music, cocktail parties, bridge tournaments and movies. Mrs. Miller kept guests in the loop with a gossipy newsletter, the Rellim-Tellim.
Mr. Miller assumed control of the hotel after his father's death in 1956. In summer and fall months, when the Rellim was closed, he bought and developed properties. With his brother-in-law, optometrist Philip Benjamin, Mr. Miller bought 34 acres at Park Boulevard and Starkey Road, developed one of the first office-condominium plazas and co-founded the Guardian and First Central banks.
In the meantime, he co-led a successful multimillion-dollar effort for a new Temple Beth-El sanctuary at 400 Pasadena Ave. S. The curved building was dedicated in 1962.
Mr. Miller sold the Rellim in 1981. In 1985, he co-founded the nursing home Menorah Manor. Mr. Miller served as president of Temple Beth-El and was on the boards of Menorah Manor, the Menorah Manor Foundation and nearly 20 non-profit organizations.
"Dad's commitment to the temple and his faith in general has been an incredible role model for us," said daughter Jan Sher, 57.
"He was our moral GPS," said Craig Sher, 56, Mr. Miller's son-in-law. "When people started to drift off course, he brought them back. Everyone understood that he was kind of the heartbeat."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.