Walter D. Miller, 70, was pumping gas into his vehicle on July 17th,when he collapsed and never revived. His hometown, Winsted, Connecticut, lost more than the owner of the 40-year-old Miller Air Conditioning and Heating business. The community lost a many-splendored public citizen — a pillar of local democracy and service.
There were times when Walter seemed to be everywhere. He was involved in many controversial issues that come up in little towns, talking up his views, writing letters to the editor, making special visits to get information and impart it. There was no rigid ideology to his thinking. Like a good umpire, he called them as he saw them, which meant he was not easy to predict. But then he never was part of the political cliques that often are found in hamlets where many people know each other.
During a heated struggle over whether to demolish and build a new elementary school or remodel the stately large Red School House, Walter came down on the side of refurbishing. He knew about flat roofs and elongated type motel school buildings of recent vintage. And he didn’t like either design.
Fiscal discipline in town government was one of his specialties. In 1987, he helped revive the Winchester Taxpayers Association and for a timeserved as president. Unlike many of the national taxpayers groups which are anti-government per se, he viewed a taxpayers’ group as a practical way to assure the competent and prudent use of tax dollars for the public’s benefit.
Such an attitude was represented by a former town manager, Wayne Dove. So when the Selectman cut Dove loose in the late Eighties, Miller printed bumper stickers, “Remember Dove”, and spread them all over town, including his own van. He never got the talented and enlightened Wayne reinstated, but then he never gave up either. Dove became his standard for evaluating the performance of town managers. (Dove went on to make
his fortune in international finance.)
No way was Walter Miller the consummate outsider. He plunged into the political system and was elected to the Board of Selectman and was elected chief of the fire department four times. A former fire chief, Frank Smith, was right on when he described his friend of forty years as “somebody who took the community’s interest to heart. You don’t see too many guys like him come around anymore.”
There was nothing circuitous about the old firefighter. You always knew where he stood and the reasons for his positions. Outspoken people often irritate and he had his share of detractors who often never really said where they stand. Inwardly they disagreed and outwardly they just didn’t like his style.
A joyful person, a gardener of beautiful flowers and a red hot baker, Miller turned his hobbies into generosity. He would pop into a friend’s office with a freshly baked loaf of bread.
Youngsters who learn about democracy in their schools are rarely taught about the few citizens who hold up our democracy for the rest of us in communities across the nation. They are usually unsung, get very little media in the larger cities, and are not long remembered by those who come after them and regularly benefit from their good civic deeds and vigilance.
Someday, authors will turn their attention to these practitioners of community civic responsibility and profile them in collections. Their legacy deserves a long spotlight into the future.
For now, Walter Miller would want any contributions to go to the volunteer-based Winsted Fire Department, Central Fire House, Elm Street, Winsted, CT 06098.