Original Air date 10/05/1994

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Inspirational speaker Dan Miller shares his personal story of overcoming adversity as an encouragement to listeners that they, too, can overcome any obstacle with God's help, hard work and a positive attitude.

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Episode Transcript


John Fuller: Today's Focus on the Family guest is Dan Miller and he's had to overcome some severe physical limitations. Through it all though, he's kept his sense of humor.


Dan Miller: "You know, I've gone from being crippled to handicapped to disabled; now I'm physically challenged." (laughter)

End of Teaser

Jim Daly: He is truly a remarkable man and when you hear what Dan Miller has been through I know you're going to agree and be encouraged in your own struggles, whatever they may be.

John: Well stick around, it's a great "Focus on the Family" broadcast with Jim Daly, and I'm John Fuller.

Jim: Dan Miller is a former P.E. teacher and remember what he just said, he's physically challenged; handicapped. He's also an award winning elementary school principal and you're going to hear his remarkable story. He also was an inspirational speaker, traveling across the U.S. and Canada to encourage over 600,000 people who attended those talks. He is now semi-retired and lives with his wife, Judy, in the state of Washington. They have three grown children and several grandchildren which I know they enjoy.

John: Well, here's Dan Miller as he speaks at a conference for the Washington Healthcare Association on today's "Focus on the Family."


Dan Miller: I choose to get up and say it's a great day and be happy because I learned that there's things that pull you down in life. There's problems and pressures and paperwork and jerks. (laughter) You know, there's jerks out there? (laughter) I was an elementary principal for 11 years, and I found out jerks come in all sizes. (laughter) Well, when I was principal, I found that I'd let the pressures pull me down. I think it's the same in all occupations, the time pressure and the paperwork and pretty soon the problems of other people around. The negative things pull us down and I started to get grumpy instead of enjoying life.

So I said, "This isn't fair. We're going to have fun." And can have fun at work as well as at home or wherever." So, I set up some committees. Don't you like committees? Who-hah! I set up a Laugh Committee, and we planned to laugh. You see, we weren't laughing enough at work. And I said, "We've got to have more fun. It's important." So, I was the one-liner man, so I was in charge of that. We got our committee going, and we had a lot of fun. I put up one-liners everywhere, by the coffee machine and, oh, in the bulletin. Things like, "You no longer have to keep up with the Joneses. They've died of exhaustion." (laughter) "If your parents didn't have any children, chances are you won't have any, either." (laughter) "If your cow doesn't give milk, sell him." (laughter) Well, I tell you what, it's fun to laugh. We need to remind ourselves to laugh.

I want to take you back now to 1955. Some of you will remember it. It was an interesting year. Nineteen fifty-five was the year that, uh, Disneyland opened in California. McDonald's opened their first drive-in in 1955. Color television was first broadcast in this country. We got our first black-and-white set in 1955. There was a lot of beginnings, a lot of new things. Of course, Chevrolet came out with a V-8 and a wraparound windshield and the Ford Thunderbird car. And, oh, Arnold Palmer joined the tour and won his first golf tournament that year. A lot of interesting things--rock and roll began. Elvis had his first hit, and Bill Haley and the Comets...some of you remember these things.

I do, because I was a senior in high school that year. That was my year, and it was an exciting year. I was captain of the basketball team, and we won the championship, actually, two straight years. I played on a football team that never lost a game in three years. I never played in a losing football game, and I knew I was a valuable member. My coach used to say, "Miller, you're little, but you're slow." (laughter) I ran the mile in track. I enjoyed sports so much, and I, I had dreams.

One of my big dreams was to be a P.E. teacher. I said, "I will someday go to college and become a P.E. teacher. That's my dream." I also loved airplanes and I said, "Someday, I'll fly an airplane." Guitars were real special to me. I just loved guitars, and I said, "You know, I'd like to play in a band and play my own guitar." I dreamed about these things. And of course, I wanted to find just the right girl and talk her into marrying me and raise talented and gifted kids. (heh) I had dreams, and they were all coming true. I signed up to go to Eastern Washington University, now at Cheney, and…to be a P.E. teacher. I got hooked up with a flight instructor to give me my first airplane lesson in July of 1955. I was so excited. I could hardly wait!

There was only three or four days to go to my first lesson, and I was out working in the fields driving a tractor. I came home and cleaned up, and suddenly I didn't feel very good. I knew I had a fever. My, my…. I just was burning up. My neck was kind of stiff. My stomach was unsettled. I just laid down, and I told Mom, I said, "I don't think I'll go to the movie tonight. I feel terrible." And my mom always worried in those hot summer days about polio, polio myelitis, infantile paralysis. It struck, uh, a million and a half kids, crippling most of them, killing 60,000. And my mom always worried about the hot summer days. So she got upset about this and was worried about it. But, but you see, she thought her worries were over. This was 1955. The biggest headline of that year was the Salk vaccine: "It Will Arrive and Wipe Out Polio," and it did. It was wonderful! But it was too late for me.

I woke up the next day very sick. The next few days, I was extremely sick, like I had a real bad case of the flu. But one morning my arm wouldn't work at all, my right arm. And I'm right-handed, and you know, I've never been able to lift that arm since, because that's what polio does. It blocks the message from the mind to the muscles, and it won't let it get through. My legs and my left arm went next, and within a week I couldn't move. I couldn't do anything. I'd just been running in track, running a mile just a few weeks before, and now I couldn't even lift either arm.

My dreams looked hopeless. My doctor didn't want to give me false hopes. He was one of those that wanted to shoot straight, and he said, "Dan, you'll be in a wheelchair the rest of your life. I don't know if you'll ever take care of yourself." But he didn't give me much hope, but there were others around that encouraged me and said, "I think you can make it. You do have a few muscles left." Then, of course, after several months of daily stretching, which they called stretching--I called it torture--where they rip the paralyzed muscles loose from the good muscles.

It was a very, uh, painful experience, daily, for several months, so I could get my range of motion back. And then for several years, we exercised every muscle group in my body until fatigued, several times a day and built up those weak muscles to take over for the ones that were paralyzed. And that's why I can stand up here today. My legs are 80 percent gone. I can't run or jump, but I can try to jump. Uh… (Jump!) I think you missed it. (laughter) I can't jump, and uh, uh,but if I sit in a chair and fold my arms, I don't have enough power to even get out of a chair. I have to use my left hand and push to get up and lock this leg and get it locked. Then I can stand up and walk pretty good. But if I step on something uneven, that leg goes out, and I hit the floor so fast. It's spectacular! (laughter) I used to demonstrate it, but it hurts, you know! (laughter)

John: (Laughs) Well, somebody who obviously has a great sense of humor about some of the challenges that he's had to deal with in life. That's Dan Miller and you'll hear more from him in just a moment on today's "Focus on the Family" about how he got into teaching, of all things, physical education, despite those limitations he deals with every day. Get a CD of this entire presentation by calling 800-A-FAMILY, 800-232-6459 or get the instant download at www.FocusontheFamily.com/radio. Let's go ahead and return now to Dan Miller on today's "Focus on the Family."

Dan: My… my left arm is over 50 percent paralyzed. And it took me two years, 2-1/2 years, before I could even lift it above my head. So it's really weak in the shoulder, but uh, uh I'm not complaining now. I'm just explaining because God's been very good to me. I went into the hospital in 1955--one of the last polio patients in this state and the nation, actually. But my folks and a lot of wonderful folks like you prayed for me, and God answers prayer. I turned out great. I have no complaints, you see. I have skinny, ugly legs and arms. I'll tell you that. You know, the muscles just waste away, and you can't do much about it.

This arm is so skinny; I can wear watches clear to my armpit, (laughter) actually, (laughter) and I do! I've had some wonderful surgery here that allows me to get a little grip and use this hand, so it's been very helpful, but it's skinny and ugly, and so are my legs. I mean, the calves are gone completely, and all my legs are just skinny, and, and uh, but it doesn't matter. I was just thinking. I put on a tank top and a pair of shorts to go golfing. I'm a sight to behold, (laughter) but it doesn't matter, you see. It really doesn't because it's not what you look like. It's who you are.

You folks know that, but I speak to a lot of folks that don't. They're all messed up watching TV, reading magazines, and not liking themselves. They wish they looked like a movie star or a model or an athlete or somebody, but they don't like themselves the way they are. Now, I have great self-esteem. I like myself. I've accepted this, and I do 'put myself up' all the time, and I never put myself down. I say, "Dan, you're an awesome dude." Every day I put myself up and those around me, because it's so important. This is a put-down world, you know. You watch much TV, and that put-down humor just bothers me. I've been teased. I've been made fun of. I've fallen down and been laughed at, and it hurts. I'll never tease somebody else and make fun of them, because it hurts. It's important to put people up and not put people down and to like yourself just the way you are, because it's not what you look like, it's who you are.

I hobbled off to college. I got out of my wheelchair, got this crutch, and started on my way to college. You see, I hadn't forgotten my dreams. I couldn't do much. I'd walk around campus. I'd fall down 15-20 times a day. My leg would go out. I'd fall on this crutch, and then I'd have to wait for nice people like you to come along, and guess what? They did. They'd say, "You need help?" (laughter) I'd say, "Yep, I do." (laughter) They didn't have handicapped facilities. I had a class on the second, third floor. I'd say to somebody, "Put me on your back, and let's go to class." That's what we'd do, and we made do. There's a lot of nice folks around, you know.

And I was hobbling around college one time, and I had my registration packet I was hanging onto. I couldn't use my right arm, so I had a little bag here I kept my books in and paper. I had my registration packet, and I was heading up to the field house, and I fell down about five times. It was a long way. That registration packet was stamped 'P.E. Exempt' all over it. I could've sold those suckers! (laughter)

I went up to the field house, and I sat down with the professor, the adviser in the P.E. department. I said, "I can't run. I can't jump. I can't do push-ups, pull-ups. I can't climb ropes or jump ropes, but I want to be a P.E. specialist. What do you think, Counselor?" What would you say? That's a tough question. I didn't know what he'd say. You see, I had no skills. I couldn't lift either arm above my head. I couldn't walk the length of this room. No skills. But it was a big risk, and it was a dream, you see. I was looking for a dream maker, and I was nervous about it. I thought, "Well, he might say, `Well, little cripple boy, you're in the wrong department.'"

You know, I've gone from being crippled to handicapped, to disabled, and now I'm physically challenged. (laughter)

I met my dream maker. He just looked at me and smiled and said, "Let's see what you can do." Well, I couldn't do anything, and he knew it, but that meant "Go for it" for me. You see, that little bit of encouragement--"Let's see what you can do"--turned me on, and I got a master's degree in P.E., double major. Then I went out and took another big risk and competed with all those physically-capable P.E. teachers for jobs. And I got good jobs, also. I was hired in Bellingham [as] Supervisor of Elementary P.E. There was 15 elementary schools in Bellingham at the time, and I traveled to all of them. And I taught over 165 teachers how to teach P.E. to kids, and I did a great job. You see, it was my dream, and another dream maker that encouraged me and didn't put me down.

I taught in Bellingham for several years. They asked me to teach college classes "Innovative and Creative Ideas in Elementary P.E.," because I was innovative and creative. And every class I taught, somebody observed, and people came from all over the state to watch me teach P.E. You see, I still can't run or jump or do push-ups or pull-ups or climb ropes or jump ropes, but it was my dream. And somebody was my dream maker.

John: Well that man has some real heart. And, that's Dan Miller. He's a polio survivor. You'll hear in just a moment how to play the guitar despite having very limiting use of his arms. This is "Focus on the Family" and you can get a CD of this program for your use or perhaps to play for a child or a friend when you call 800-A-FAMILY, or get the instant download at www.FocusontheFamily.com/radio. Let's return now to Dan Miller on "Focus on the Family."

Dan: My wife, Judy, is my biggest dream maker. She's always telling me, "You can do it. Go for it." One day I about drove off the road going by the airport. She said, "You know, you need to go out and learn to fly an airplane." Wow! You know, I had other people that didn't think it was such a good idea, (laughter) but Judy said, "Go for it." And I did. I went out to the airport. I was really not sure what he'd say, so I took a lot of money with me. I gave him the money first, (laughter) and I said, "I'd like to learn to fly." Well, he looked at me, and he looked at the money, and he said, "Get in." (laughter)

So we got in. He put me in the left seat, and he got over on the right seat--that's the way you normally do it--and we went up in the air. He turned that airplane over to me, and it was terrible. I could not fly. I went all over the sky. When we got back, I think he was kinda relieved to be back. You see, I couldn't reach the flaps or the throttle. I had to reach across, and it was a disaster. So we got back on the ground, and you see, when things don't go well for me, and I think it's a good idea, and it doesn't work, you know what I say? "Well, that didn't work." See, it just sort of takes the pressure off. I could've said, "Dan, what made you think you could ever fly an airplane? Now, that was a stupid idea," and beat up on myself. But you see, I don't do that. That's not good for me. I don't beat up on myself. I just say, "Well, that didn't work."

Then I looked at him and said, "What if we trade seats? I'll get in on this side, and you get on this side, and let's try it a different way. There's more than one way." He said, "Okay," and up we went, and it was better. Now, it wasn't perfect. I have another saying, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing poorly at first." (laughter) And it was, but I kept going, and I kept getting better. And persistence, you see, you folks know about persistence. That's really important.

So we persisted, and I got better. I went to my grandma's house. I said, "Grandma, I'm going to be a pilot. I'm taking lessons." And she said, "Mercy." (laughter) She said, "You only have one good arm, and the hills are already full of little Cessnas." (laughter) And Grandma was right, you know, but I didn't let Grandma be my dream killer, either. I got my pilot's license with no restrictions. [crowd: Wow] Nobody will fly with me, (laughter) no, I've been flying since 1975, and I just love it. I have to adapt and do some things. I can hold onto the yoke with this hand a little bit and get back quickly from the throttle flaps and various things I need to do. So I'm really tickled. I met my dream, you see.

I also learned to play golf. I'm a one-armed golfer. I've been playing now, seriously, for several years. I'm down to where I'm about a bogey golfer now, not quite, but I'm right in there. My best score for nine holes is a 38 on a regular course, and a half-par to par three par 27, and 83 is my best 18 so far, but I'm still working on it. And if some of you golfers are having trouble, I'll just give you a little demonstration here. (sound of ball) Are you nervous? (ha)This is a risk for both of us, you see. (laughter) I'm just gonna hit it. You just use one arm, and it'll go nice and straight. Wooo--right down the middle! Nice catch, too! (laughter and applause) I uh, I won this trophy at a golf tournament. It was for educational administrators, and it was called the "Open-Minded Golf Tournament." (laughter) And I won that sucker. Of course, I ordered the trophies that year. (laughter) This one says, "Best One-Armed Golfer," so I won that sucker. Hey-hey! (laughter)

One other thing I wanted to mention, because you folks do such a wonderful job helping people and helping them persist. I see, I see a lot of people that aren't willing to wait for results these days. I wanted to shoot baskets. I love to shoot. When I was right-handed, I could jump and shoot that basketball. And then, even with my left hand, it's still so weak I can't lift a real basketball above my head without it coming down, but I figured out, starting with one like this, and then taking the principles I learned in P.E., I could use my good leg and twist like a shot-putter and then turn like that and use my whole body and push, and then, I could get some (laughs) and then I could get some power. And I went out and started because I wanted to. I shot baskets for three weeks before I made one. And after that, I shot for two to three years on a steady, constant basis. Finally, after about three years, I set my all-time record. I got strong enough that I could use a real basketball, stand at the free-throw line, and I made 96 out of 100 free throws with my left hand, because I wanted to, you see. I persisted. It was important to me as a goal. Not necessarily a big dream, but it was something I wanted to do.

And I tell you that because, sometimes, we need to persist and go for our dreams. Now, you folks have dreams, and you need to go for them. You know what? You're dream makers for others. Every person you come in contact with, you can be a dream maker or a dream breaker. I don't know if you've thought about that, but I have. I've had enough dream makers, and I've gotten away from those dream breakers that told me I couldn't do these things. You need to think about that, because you influence so many people and help so many people to go for their dreams, whether they're little ones or big ones. So think of yourself as dream makers from now on, because you are.

My guitar is uh, special. It was one of my biggest dreams in life, and it didn't work, and it didn't work. I tried so many times. I had friends say, "Why don't you give up? Your thumb is useless. Your fingers won't open, your wrist is fused. Your arm won't straighten out. You need wrist action. Why don't you give up? It's just disappointing." And I wouldn't give up, and I kept trying, and it didn't work. (Strumming) I kept trying, and it didn't work. Finally, one day, I just kinda sat down to rest and flipped that useless thumb right on top of the guitar neck, and I found (strumming) I could hit the strings with these two fingers that work. Well, that gave me encouragement, and away I went.

I started working on that, (strumming) and I found out I could play a guitar. (strumming) You can a play a little hot lick in there, you see. (applause) And thank you. I got ahold of a bass guitar and taught myself to play a bass. (picking) A bass guitar's strings are a little wider and easier to play than this, but I got a band together, started playing bass, and helped work my way through college playing in a band. You see, one of my dreams. I didn't give up on it. It took a while, you see.

But, I tell you that, because you can do it, too. You have a dream, and sometimes you've given up on it, but think about it. Maybe it's not too late to go for it.

Audience: (Applause)


John: Some great encouragement today on "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly from Dan Miller. And I hope you've been inspired by him and his life story to pursue a dream, to start that journey today.

Jim: I gotta tell you, John, Dan plays the guitar far better than I do, that's for sure; and he does have severe physical limitations. That's what makes that so special.

John: Well he motivates us doesn't he, and if you missed the beginning of the program, Dan was one of the last victims of polio here in the U.S. and he has only 20% use of his legs and 50% use of his left arm. His right arm is completely paralyzed, except for his hand, but despite those tremendous obstacles, he went on to become a P.E. teacher and he learned how to fly a plane, shoot basketball hoops, plays golf and plays guitar better than Jim Daly.

Jim: (Chuckles) That's easy to do! But, you know what, that's the power of prayer and a willingness to work hard, plus that positive attitude that we get from being rooted in Christ. And I really appreciate Dan's lesson for us today. Each of us needs to be a dream maker, that's what he is, a dream maker, and as he said, "not a dream breaker." It's so important for us to encourage one another and I don't know why we struggle so much in that way. We like to be encouraged and we should be encouragers of others. First Thessalonians 5:11, written by the Apostle Paul says, "Encourage one another and build one another up." I don't think we do that very well. I know I fail at it sometimes. And it applies to our spouse and to our children, our co-workers and friends, our pastor in church leadership and I think we can do a far better job encouraging people. Even if we disagree with something they might say. Don't make that the highlight of the moment. Be an encourager. I've noticed that when I've done it with purpose, it does put a smile on people's faces. We are wired for that. So, let's challenge each other to try to be an encourager today.

John: Yeah, and you referenced that dream maker, not dream breaker phrase that Dan used. A former co-worker here, H.B. London, used to call people "joy suckers."

Jim: (Chuckles) That's right, he did!

John: Be a joy giver, somebody that brings a smile to folks faces.

Jim: I don't know why we enjoy being joy suckers. It's like it's a natural part of the flesh. That's what we've got to fight. The Lord, and again, the Apostle Paul, saying be an encourager to one another, love each other. You know, one of the reasons Focus on the Family exists is to encourage you in, your marriage, in your parenting, where those relationships are going to be challenged and most importantly in your walk with Christ. And you can be part of our encouragement team here at Focus by getting a CD copy of this program and passing it along to someone who needs to hear it. You know, so often those who donate and pray for Focus say, "What else can we do?" Hey, be in your neighborhood, you know a marriage that's struggling? Let them know about what we can do to help them; the resources that Focus can provide. Pick something up that you can put in their hands to help strengthen their marriage or help them in their parenting journey. That's why we're here. In fact, last time we aired Dan's message back in 2007, here's what a woman wrote in to say, quote:

"Dan Miller has such a sweet, joyful spirit. He encouraged me to look at my own circumstances in a different light. Thank you!"

You know, we think this particular message is so helpful that we want to send it to you for a gift of any amount to the ministry. Get in touch with us today. Let us bless you and encourage you and you can do the same by blessing and encouraging us.

John: Well, we're just a phone call away 800-A-FAMILY or go to www.FocusontheFamily.com/radio. Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller inviting you back next time; Dr. Kevin Leman joins us to share parenting tips for the middle school years as we help you and your family thrive.

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Dan Miller

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Dan Miller is a former physical education teacher and school principal who became an inspirational speaker, traveling around the U.S. and Canada to share his principles for overcoming obstacles in life. He is author of the book Living, Laughing and Loving Life! Dan and his wife, Judy, are semi-retired and reside in Washington.