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The Latest Dirt - Nov 2023

An Interview with Bill Miller

by David George

Bill Miller has been a leader all his life. He inspires other UC Master Gardener volunteers with his caring attitude and soft-spoken approach to whatever roles he attempts in the program. His thoughtfulness and dedication are visibly demonstrated as an essential contributor to the Executive Leadership Team. I had the pleasure of interviewing Bill the other day to learn more about his background, his current interests, and his advice on how to be an effective volunteer and a happy one.

What did you do, Bill, before joining the UC Master Gardener program?

“Well, I was fortunate to work exclusively in education for 43 years, 23 years of which I spent as the Head of Seven Hills School in Walnut Creek – just down Ygnacio from Our Garden. Before that, I was an administrator at the Stuart Hall for Boys in San Francisco, a part of the Sacred Heart system. My BA degree in literature was earned at the University of Notre Dame, and I also have a Master’s in education administration from USF. What I enjoyed most was the gap of two and a half years between college and graduate school when I traveled in Europe, living mostly in France. That was a great experience for me.”

France is a super place to earn a real-world education! So, when were you certified as a UC Master Gardener, and what roles have you volunteered for so far?

“I retired from Seven Hills School in 2015. I had been researching the UC Master Gardener program and decided to attend their information meeting that spring. My application was accepted, and I became certified with the class of 2016. The training classes were an astounding education for me and expanded my knowledge of research-based gardening techniques.

“I wanted to put my training immediately to work in our Ask a Master Gardener farmers market tables. I coordinated the Shadelands Farmers Market table for three years before John Fike begged me to turn it over to him (Bill laughs). I also got interested in composting when I attended the RecycleSmart training class (with Joie Spinelli), which the Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority offered. At the time, Our Garden had no active recycling/composting system. Along with Joie and others, we turn the abundant green waste produced by our veggie beds into rich compost in a “hot composting” fashion, which takes just six weeks or so if done properly. We recycle ALL the green waste in Our Garden now.”

That’s putting your training to good use! What have been the most satisfying parts of your volunteering?

“I’ve really enjoyed co-leading the whole AAMG project since 2019, most recently along with Greg Doyle and Laura Brainin-Rodriguez. And I still get a kick working in the booths. Interacting with the public can be fun like the year we were outmatched by the Northgate High School Madrigals singing their hearts out just a few feet away. Some visitors seem just to want someone to talk with, like the fellow who asked me the difference between “entomology” (the study of bugs) and “etymology” (the study of words)! Seriously though, working on a new offering, the Virtual Ask a Master Gardener project during the pandemic was fun, too. But the initiative was shelved when we reopened the in-person farmer’s market booths. You never know, though; we may need it again someday. I am also in my second year of a two-year commitment to the Executive Leadership Team.”

What have been your biggest challenges so far, Bill?

“From the ELT perspective, it’s been making sure that our UC Master Gardener volunteers always feel welcome, whether they sign up for an AAMG booth, a Great Tomato Plant Sale task, or anything else. Volunteers who feel welcome are happy volunteers and will volunteer again. We all need to feel welcomed, loved and included. The ELT has no real decision-making authority, although we advise the Executive Committee and are involved in just about all working elements of the program, including financial policy. We try to inject fresh ideas and new initiatives into the program’s comprehensive 5-Year Strategic Plan to keep the program vibrant and volunteers happy.

Will you continue to work on the 5-Year Plan going forward?

“Yes and no. When my tenure on the ELT is over next June, my direct involvement with the 5-Year Plan ends. I’ve had to be judicious about the activities I can involve myself in while a member of the ELT. But starting next year, I hope to return to active roles in the AAMG booths and maybe get involved with the School Gardens project to leverage my years of experience at Seven Hills School. New Volunteer Training would be fun also, perhaps on the admissions side. I want to help better define “What it is to be a UC Master Gardener.” For me, it’s being connected to nature, to outdoor activities, and to the public.”

Your definition works for me, too! What advice do you have to share with newer volunteers?

“Enjoy the time you have working with the other volunteers and interacting with members of the public respectfully. Our activities give you the opportunity to be present in the here and now and not always craning your neck to read a tiny smartphone screen. Enjoy the learning aspects and the growth that you’ll experience as you get more and more involved. Listening is always the best skill. There are so many climate challenges we face right now. Being a UC Master Gardener volunteer allows you to help save the planet in your own way. I believe that focusing on nature makes you appreciate life.”

Thanks, Bill, for these inspirational thoughts and advice and for your years of service in leadership roles. With your perspectives, there’s no doubt that you’ll continue having fun, being happy, and contributing for years to come!