Dan Miller wears his heart on his hat.
He shuffled into a twice-weekly physical therapy session, cracking a smile when someone teased him about his trusty Chicago Cubs ball cap. “Hope springs eternal,” he joked in a raspy voice that was barely more than a whisper.
His wisecrack was aimed at the perennially disappointing baseball team. But it also described his mindset as he wrestles with a relentless fatal disease that most people have never heard of.
Just a few years ago, Miller was the polished, upbeat leader of Iowa Public Television. He worked at the network 38 years, including a decade as its executive director and general manager. His most public duty was as host of IPTV’s annual “Festival,” a two-week event featuring popular programs interspersed with fund-raising appeals.
He retired in 2013, because of what doctors diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease. He’d been bumping into things, slurring his speech and struggling to think of words. He had kept his diagnosis private for a while, but he worried that his staff would think booze was the source of his clumsiness and thickened tongue. So he told them the truth — or what he thought was the truth.
The doctors had assured him he could live with Parkinson’s for decades. “The famous line was, ‘You’re going to walk your daughter down the aisle,’ ” recalled his wife, Diane Graham.
Their daughter, Maya, was 12 then, so the prediction was encouraging. But the optimistic words faded as Parkinson’s drugs failed to slow Miller’s swift decline. His speech became a muffled stutter. He couldn’t stand without leaning on an aluminum walker. He would halt in the middle of a wooden floor, because his brain couldn’t tell his foot to step over a harmless line between two boards.
Last September, doctors at Mayo Clinic delivered a more devastating diagnosis. Miller, 64, has Multiple System Atrophy, a relatively rare disease sometimes described as “Parkinson’s on speed.”