Utah’s Gail Miller honored at Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for philanthropic work

(Lennie Mahler | Tribune file photo) Gail Miller, owner and chairman of The Larry H. Miller Group of Companies announces during a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder she will transfer ownership of the Utah Jazz and Vivint Smart Home Arena to a family-owned legacy fund Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Left of Miller is her grandson, Zane Miller.

Washington • Utah businesswoman and philanthropist Gail Miller was honored Thursday at the Congressional Gold Medal awards for her efforts to give back to her community.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, presented Miller, the owner of the Utah Jazz, the Horizon Award, one of the top honors given out by the board of the Congressional Award Foundation, the only official charity arm of Congress.

“She’s on the board of numerous charitable organizations too numerous to even mention,” Romney said during a ceremony at the Capitol Visitors Center. “And she is not only a pillar of our community, she is an example who serves with grace and with commitment and personal strength.”

Added Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah: “In Utah, as in America, generally we're great not because of who we are but because of what we do. I think no one in the state of Utah more appropriately reflects that sentiment than Gail Miller.”

Miller is the owner and chairwoman of the Larry H. Miller Group, which she started with her late husband, that is now one of the largest private employers in the country with 80 businesses in 46 states. She also runs charities affiliated with the company that support religious, scientific, literary and educational programs.

“Coming from very humble beginnings to high success, I feel like it’s my responsibility — because of what I have and what I’ve been able to achieve — to help others get there and be beneficiaries of whatever I can offer,” Miller said in an interview after accepting the award. “I think if we all have that attitude and that reason for being that the world would be a much better place.”

Miller was honored at a ceremony where the foundation doled out Congressional Gold Medals to 538 students from across the United States — including eight from Utah — for accomplishments that include public service, physical fitness and academic achievement.

Miller told the crowd that if everyone would live a more altruistic life, the world would be a better place.

“By working together, we can eradicate bullying, discrimination and hate, unsportsmanlike conduct and intolerance,” she said. “We all need to stand up and speak out. You are the leaders of tomorrow. We're counting on your innovative ideas your energy your compassion and your courage to build a strong world.”

To the students, Thursday's ceremony was a crowning moment that took years – sometimes four years – to achieve.

“I feel like it is really inspirational,” said Sarah Shwani, of Sandy. “I feel like when people see us on that stage and getting our medal, they want to be like that too. I feel like that’s really, really important because the things you do to get to this place are really, really amazing, not only that you’re paying back to your community but you’re also making yourself grow while you’re doing it.”

Three of Utah's winners are Muslim, a point the students say shows that the state is more diverse than many people think.

“It definitely shows some diversity just because not a lot of people think that Muslims live in Utah. But I mean, everyone there is really nice and welcoming," said Fatima Faizi, of Cottonwood Heights.

Miller, too, said it was great to see such diversity among the winners.

“I think it says we're inclusive,” Miller said. “It means that we accept everyone and everyone has value, that there was an opportunity for everyone to excel and to make the best of their life.”

Miller, who doesn’t often speak in public, recently took to the floor of the Vivint Smart Home Arena to say that Utah is “not a racist community” after a fan shouted offensive remarks at a visiting player, who was black. That fan and a second one involved in a separate confrontation a year earlier were banned for life from the arena.

Miller says she learned only this week why she was given the Horizon Award – that the foundation board’s chairman had attended a diversity event thrown by her company in Salt Lake City previously and was impressed by her efforts to give back.

But she said the focus should be on the students.

“I think because of the requirements of this award they become better citizens,” she said. “They understand their responsibilities and what it means to contribute to society and be the best they can be. I’m quite impressed with the extent they go to to earn this award.”