It would extremely difficult to find a more popular public figure in these parts than the soon-to-be-retired Wayland Fire Chief Joe Miller.
Just about everybody likes Joe. Well, evildoers and law breakers probably feel otherwise.
Unlike many of his well wishers after the news he’s stepping down July 6 after serving nearly 50 years on the department, I remember Joe Miller as a sporting and unpredictable youth in the mid-1960s. The son of a longtime local public safety servant, Earl Miller, he grew up tough with a lot of pressure to be a good boy.
Yet I understand Joe dropped out of school because I hear tell he was regarded as a square peg trying to fit in a round hole.
Yet Joe, as was his custom, pulled himself up by his bootstraps.
The first time I ever heard him speak was while cruising in downtown Wayland, where he flatly declared his love for Joanie Morgenstern. The two indeed went to the altar.
Then I learned he joined the fire department on Jan. 1, 1972, and three years later he finished the job of getting that high school diploma through adult education. He was on his way to a lifetime of public service.
Joe then started Miller’s Phillips 66 gas station on West Superior by the U.S.-131 expressway at a time there wasn’t much activity at all in that area. He provided some wrecker service and managed to survive those years when gas shortages and skyrocketing prices prevailed.
I got more than a chuckle when an Allegan County Sheriff’s deputy was telling me about an incident in which robbers were busted in an attempted holdup at the gas station.
The officer told me, “Those poor fellas picked the wrong place to rob.”
I once did a story about Joe winning some kind of award for saving a guy’s life with quick thinking and bold action.
I also chuckled when I saw the Wayland Globe picture and story of Joe being named the Wayland Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year award in 1980. I almost didn’t recognize him with his long hair and beard. I wasn’t around these parts in that year, so I don’t remember his longhair period.
Through the years, Joe became really famous for being the guy you could count on for help when you got into a jam. He always was steady as a rock.
Most recently, I exchanged humorous verbal insults with him after buying a drive-through barbecue sandwich, coleslaw and chips dinner to benefit one of his firefighters with health issues.
After picking up the food, I yelled at him, “This better be good!”
He replied: “There is no money back guarantee!”
Essentially, Joe Miller is the kind of local public servant that everybody wants and loves. He’s lifelong local, he cares, he always tries to do the right thing, he’s stern and paternal when he has to be, and doggone it, people like him.
All the best in retirement, Joe. I’ll bet you won’t be bored. You’re not that kind of a hairpin.