Burning passion to serve
ELY– For 35 years, when the fire phone or pager would signal an emergency in Ely, volunteer firefighter Jim Miller would respond. At the age of 79, like the fire horse of old, he still turns out when the alarm sounds.
And he’s not going away anytime soon if he can help it.
“I told them I’ll quit when they carry me out or throw me out, and I’m sticking to it,” Miller said.
A Cedar Rapids native, Miller and wife Katie moved just outside of Ely in 1968. After watching the firemen respond to calls, he decided he wanted to join. There was one catch, though; the department required all of its members to live within the city limits. After annexation, Miller’s land fell within the corporate limits of Ely, and he joined the department’s ranks in 1976.
The night he was voted into the department turned out to be the third fire department meeting he attended as a guest. The first two didn’t go very well for Miller and he was so nervous, he was literally shaking at the third. You see, Miller had unintentionally run afoul of the volunteers in 1969 when he organized a Fourth of July parade for the town’s kids.
After being denied a parade permit by the city, Miller decided he would just “decorate the kids’ bikes and let them ride around town.” The informal procession disrupted the Firemen’s Breakfast as people in line for pancakes and eggs went to watch the parade instead. Miller was summoned to the next fire meeting.
“They were mad at me, saying ‘we had to throw away pancakes and eggs and sausages because of you.’”
The next year, Miller held his parade again, this time in the afternoon so as to not interfere with the firemen he wanted to join. Members of the Cedar Rapids Horseman’s Club, which he joined in 1951, and guys with antique cars participated as well. But again, things went awry as set-up for the department’s waterball fights was interrupted.
“They called me up to the station again,” he said.
So in 1976, he had more than a little trepidation as he waited outside the meeting room while the men voted on his fate and future with the department. His fears were soon relieved as his name was added to the roster and gear was issued.
“I’d seen them go out on calls and I wanted to help. I drove a hearse so I wasn’t afraid of the (dead) bodies. I always just wanted to help.”
Although he leaves the strenuous rigors of firefighting to younger firefighters, Miller still gladly and proudly answers the call.
“People are still in need and I can help them.”
Many of the department’s responses are for medical emergencies and many of the volunteers are state-certified First Responders and Emergency Medical Technicians. While Miller isn’t among the medically certified, he can and does drive the medical personnel to the scene. He is then able to provide comfort to family members, answering questions about what is happening to their loved ones.
When the alarm is for a fire, Miller often takes 290, the department’s water tanker, to the scene. Without hydrants in the rural areas, the firefighters have to truck in every drop, which means Miller takes water to the scene, dumps it into a portable holding tank, then returns to town to fill up for another load to haul to the fire. The cycle is repeated as long as water is needed.
A firefighter deals with a lot of tragedy, and Miller is no exception. The Millers lost their daughter, Rhonda Kay, in 1957 to acute pneumonia at only three weeks of age. In 1985, tragedy would strike again.
Nov. 24, 1985, was the Miller’s 30th anniversary. The celebration was cut short as he answered the pager and responded to a vehicle accident with injuries. Once on the scene, a friend of his son Andy came up to him, very distraught.
“You’re going to hate me because I couldn’t lift the car up off of him (Andy),” the friend said.
Andy was pinned under an overturned vehicle and critically injured. He was extricated by Miller’s firefighting brothers and placed in a helicopter for the fast trip to a hospital. Miller understandably wanted to go along, but there wasn’t room. The flight crew suggested he ride in the ambulance taking the three other youths.
Instead he rushed home and told Katie what had happened. Together they went to the hospital where they got the devastating news. Andy had died.
“Andy wanted to be a firefighter too…as a kid he’d go with me to some of the fires.” The department fell in behind the Millers and helped with the funeral. A fireman-themed decoration with Andy’s name on it sits in a display case in the current meeting room.
People still ask him how he can still respond to car accidents after that. In his humble manner, he replies he just wants to be able to help somebody else.
Miller has received a stack of awards over the years for his volunteering, many from his time with the Cedar Rapids Horseman’s Club. He appreciates the recognition, but quickly shrugs them off.
“I don’t do this for awards. I do this because I want to,” Miller said.
He also turned the spotlight onto Katie, saying if anybody should be honored for volunteering, it’s her.
“She does more volunteer work than I do,” he said. Katie has made quilts for needy families, custom makes bags to go on walkers, makes caps for ladies who have lost their hair due to cancer treatments, and recently made 10 quilts for wounded veterans at the Walter Reed Army Hospital. The quilting guild of which she is a member sent a total of 70. In her spare time, she also sews patches on the firefighters’ uniform shirts and jackets.
After 56 years, Miller said, “I’m just lucky she puts up with me.”
Miller has held various leadership positions with the Horseman’s Club, and spearheaded the organization’s ride for cerebral palsy victims and others with special needs. He also left his mark in the Ely community as chairman of the construction crew which turned the old school into the community center, served on the board of adjustment, spent six years on the city council and organized the Fourth of July parade for 31 years.
But his first love is the fire department. As a retiree, he has time to devote even more hours to it. “It’s pretty much my life these days.” Miller started a museum dedicated to the Ely volunteers, and firefighters in general, in an empty room in the new station which was built in 2002. Originally, the firemen wanted to make the room into a library. Miller championed for a museum. “You can have books in a museum,” he said. In the end, the room was filled with display cases, old equipment, antique lights and a siren, photos and newspaper clippings, “anything that pertains to being a fireman.”
Miller had previously saved and preserved a group of water repellent hats the guys wore when the department was founded in 1932. It was before they had helmets. He also saved some antique nozzles that were going to be thrown away.
He is especially proud of his collection of 120 toy and scale replica fire trucks showcased in the museum. After years of good-natured ribbing about the room being “Jim’s Fire Museum,” he had the proper name put up over the door: “Ely Firefighters Museum.” However, after looking at it recently, he recoiled when he realized the word “volunteer” was missing. Miller stresses the word volunteer, “because a lot of these guys give up a lot of their time. We’ve got a good group of firemen and medical people.”
As for Miller, he will continue to answer the call and donate his time for as long as possible.
“I just can’t give it up,” Miller said of being a volunteer firefighter. While he can’t do as much as he used to, “I can still do things to help them out.”