Jim Miller 2014-05-13 12:48:01
Former NFL executive learned the X’s and O’s of service from his father. Thursday night was Lions Club night in 1957 when my father was the 35-year-old president of the Simpsonville Lions Club in Kentucky. I was 9 and my brother Jerry was 6, both of us selfish in the manner of boys who wanted their dad home every night without excuse. But Dad knew that his responsibility as a prominent member of a small community involved much more than his own family. Dad was a Lion, and he was proud of it. While Dad attended his meetings, our mother kept us occupied with games of Candyland and Uncle Wiggly or TV episodes of “Dinah Shore,” “Dragnet” and my personal favorite, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.” But around 9 p.m. we would hear the garage door go up and Dad would walk in. We’d run to him like he had been away for months. He gave Mom an affectionate peck, then made sure the TV was set to the “Tennessee Ernie Ford Show,” and our earth was once more rotating on its proper axis. Today, Simpsonville bills itself as the American Saddlebred Horse Capital of the World, but for decades dairy farms dotted the landscape. A half-century ago, 627 dairies averaging 132 acres each were in production, making Shelby County the largest dairy-producing county in the state. Dad and his brother, Bill, who also was a Lion, were right in the middle of it as owners and operators of Miller Brothers. They picked up the milk at farms and transported it to the large dairy processing plants in Louisville. The milk hauling business was a seven-day, 12-month business that required the hauler’s presence every day. Frustrated by his absence, I once asked Dad when he was going to take a day off. He paused and then replied, “When I invent the five-day cow.” Barely a decade past, World War II still was a fresh memory when former tech sergeant and radio operator Charles E. Miller was named president of the Simpsonville Lions. He was not an imposing presence. He stood only 5- foot-7-inches and weighed 160 pounds with neatly combed dark hair and glasses that gave him a studious appearance. He was quiet and reserved yet always managed to give the appearance of being in control. I can count on one hand the number of times I heard him swear, and each time I can blame a faulty hammer or other external malfunction. But when he spoke people listened because they knew it was coming from a man of high character who saw the mission as paramount. Dad was a good representative of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” a generation whose members practiced their values without proclaiming them. And that made him a good fit for the Lions. Being club president was hard work, but Dad was always prepared for it. Many nights he sat at his small desk in a corner of our family room, pounding out the club’s agenda and any other official Lions business on his reliable, war-surplus Remington No. 16 typewriter. Club fundraisers occupied a great deal of his attention as president. In the summer, the Lions operated a softball league in which Jerry and I were avid participants. In the winter months, the club held an annual talent show that revealed a hidden whimsical side of Dad. It was a revelation to see him and two other tailtwisters dress in drag as the Andrews Sisters and lip-sync “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Jerry and I never would have seen that side of Dad if it weren’t for the easy camaraderie and willingness to sacrifice some dignity in order to help the Simpsonville Lions perform service in the community. The funds raised went to Christmas baskets for the poor and to the organization’s newest enterprise in the 1950s, the Kentucky Lions Eye Bank. That was about the time that the Kentucky Lions began sponsoring an annual high school all-star series that matched the state’s best high school basketball seniors against the best in Indiana. Since its inception and through the early work of men like Dad, the Foundation has received more than $2 million in proceeds from this game that support an eye bank, eye clinics, eye research and programs including the Vision Van and KidSight programs throughout the state. Dad remained active in the Lions after his term ended, and he even enlisted his sons to help in various ways. When I grew into an age of semi-responsibility, he assigned me to help sell refreshments at the club’s stand at the annual Shelby County Fair. (The old sergeant never asked us to perform tasks, but he was not shy about assigning them!) The Lions’ stand at the fair was like the clock at Grand Central Station, a convenient meeting place for fairgoers, located strategically between the major walkways, just behind the horse show ring and a few yards from the midway bustle of shooting galleries, ring-tosses and carousels. While Dad saw many of his business customers and friends at the booth, I was busy with my first experience of selling hamburgers, hot dogs and soft drinks and counting out change. In the days before McDonald’s and a zillion other fast food options, I can still taste those unsold hamburgers left over after the fair that members were allowed to buy. They just had a taste I will never forget. As Jerry and I grew, Dad taught us lessons that were clearly extensions of his Lions’ values, and they have remained with us throughout our lives. Jerry followed more closely in Dad’s footsteps, becoming president of the Simpsonville Lions at age 32. That role helped prepare him for a second career in public service as a member of the Louisville Metro Council. My career as an itinerant sports executive prevented me from laying down such roots, but I served six years in the U.S. Army Reserve, achieving the same rank as my Dad. Over the years I have had the opportunity to speak to a number of community organizations including Lions clubs. I enjoy regaling Lions with stories of Dad’s service, which I relate with great pride and conviction. The We Serve mission has always resonated in our family. Sadly, the wheels of time caught up with my Mom and Dad. Mom died in 2002. Four years later, at age 84, Dad was declining physically. But his mind remained sharp, and he insisted on staying in the same house he had built nearly a half-century earlier. Then one day he walked out to the road to check the mailbox, and his heart just gave out. He lasted a week, and Jerry and I were at his bedside, talking about the good memories. Sports were always a ready topic, and he could talk for hours about Kentucky basketball and the Red Sox. He reminded us that the best trip he ever took was when Jerry and I took him to Fenway Park to celebrate his 70th birthday. Even in his final 48 hours, when he was coming in and out of consciousness, he somehow managed to ask us to update him on the sports news. “Did the Red Sox win?” he hoarsely inquired. Later, “Are they still in first place?” His final question to us was: “Who’s pitching tonight?” I truly believe that after the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, he was ready to go. Dad outlived most of his old Lions mates. But they were with him in spirit. A photo montage at the funeral home included one of him with his buddies performing a skit at an annual fundraiser. As he lay in state, almost looking as though he could open his eyes and smile at us, he was surrounded by symbols of things he held dear. Beside his head lay two blue caps, one bearing a white “UK” and the other a red “B.” On his lapel he wore his Lions pin. Speaking as a Lions’ cub, I will always be grateful to the Lions for providing Dad with a rare break from family and work and for allowing him to do something extra for his community and for himself. Lions even gave the tough but loving veteran the courage to dress up as one of the Andrews Sisters in the name of service. Jim Miller is a former NFL executive and college athletic director living in New Orleans.
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