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His work is done

Ely’s Jim Miller leaves behind the legacy of a lifetime of service
Ely Firefighters carry the coffin containing Jim Miller to his grave in St. John’s Cemetery, in Cedar Rapids, on Thursday, June 11. Miller, a 44-year member of the Ely Fire Department, died in his home on Sunday, June 7, at the age of 87. (photo used with permission of the Ely Volunteer Fire Department)

ELY– A lifetime of service to the people of Ely, Cedar Rapids and the surrounding area came to an end on Sunday, June 7, as 87-year-old James “Jim” Miller died at his home, in Ely. Miller was born in Cedar Rapids in 1932, graduated from St. Wenceslaus Catholic High School, and served in the United States Army during the Korean War. In 1955, Miller married Kathryn “Katie” Bush, who survives him. Of Katie, Miller frequently said, “If I looked for 100 years, I could never find a better wife than Katie.”
The couple moved to a home, just outside of Ely’s city limits, in 1968 where he soon took notice of the Ely Volunteer Fire Department responding to emergency calls.
In a 2011 interview with the Economist, Miller recalled wanting to join them, but the volunteers were all required to live in Ely. His land was eventually annexed into Ely and he joined up in 1976, starting a 44-year career in the fire service.
As Miller recalled, it was his third department meeting when he was voted on, and he was nervous as the first two didn’t go so very well for him. He annoyed several of the firemen back in 1969 when he organized a Fourth of July parade for Ely’s kids. After the City denied him a parade permit, he took it upon himself to decorate the kids’ bikes and let them ride around town. Unfortunately, the “parade” disrupted the annual Firemen’s Breakfast as people standing in line went to watch it instead. The firemen summoned him to their next meeting, for a dressing down.
“They were mad at me, saying ‘we had to throw away pancakes and eggs and sausages because of you.’”
A year later, he did it again, only waiting until the afternoon so as to not interfere with the breakfast. Again though, things went awry for Miller. Fellow members of the Cedar Rapids Horseman’s Club, which he joined in 1951, and guys with antique cars joined in, too…and interrupted the department’s water ball fights.
“They called me up again,” he said.
His nervousness was for naught as his name was added to the roster, and his helmet, coat, and boots were assigned to him.
In 1985 tragedy struck the Miller family when son Andy was killed in a car accident, an accident Miller responded to with the fire department.
“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. The Millers had previously lost their daughter Rhonda Kay in 1957 to acute pneumonia at only three weeks of age. Despite his own tragedies, he continued to answer the alarms out of a desire to help others in their time of crisis.
Miller also helped others in less emergent situations as a member of the Horseman’s Club, where he held several leadership positions, and spearheaded the Club’s rides for cerebral palsy victims and others with special needs.
His volunteer efforts garnered him a literal stack of awards, honors he would quickly shrug off.
“I don’t do this for awards,” he said, “I do this because I want to.”
He also would quickly turn the spotlight onto Katie, pointing out how she would make quilts for needy families, custom bags to go onto walkers, caps for ladies who had lost their hair to cancer treatments, and a pile of quilts for wounded veterans.
Miller said, “She does more volunteer work than I do.”
However, when Ely’s former school was in need of repair and renovation in order to be transformed into a Community Center, Miller was there, front and center as chairman of the construction crew with over 10,000 documented work hours.
He served on Ely’s Board of Adjustments, was on the City Council for six years and regularly attended council meetings long after his term was up, and organized a City-sanctioned and permitted, and non-interfering with the Fire Department, Fourth of July Parade for over 30 years. He also served the City as a police officer when Ely had its own department.
When the 2008 flood devastated St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids, he and five others spent two years saving the historic church, and restoring it to pristine pre-flood condition. He also found time to establish a fire museum in the “new” (built in 2002) Ely Fire Station.
His fellow firefighters hung a sign over the door proclaiming it to be “Jim’s Fire Museum,” and he replaced it with a proper sign declaring the room full of display cases, old equipment, vintage lights and sirens, photos, newspaper clippings, old coats and boots and helmets (including a water-repellent hat the men wore when the department was founded in 1932, and before they had helmets) as “The Ely Firefighters’ Museum.” One hundred twenty die cast toy and scale replica fire trucks are also included in the museum.
Miller was no stranger to collecting things. A porch on his house was filled floor-to-ceiling with Roy Rogers memorabilia, and a shed was likewise full of a staggering array of items.
Included among those many, many awards are The Mayor’s Award, a Governor’s Award, a Phil Harris Award (presented to individuals who have contributions made in their name to The Rotary Foundation of $1,000), a plaque from the Iowa Firefighter’s Association, received in 2017, honoring his years of service, and the first Citizen of the Year Award, which was named in his honor and presented to him in 2018.
In an interview at the time, Miller told of how he received the award. The evening of the presentation, he was helping out with a fire department training session at Kirkwood Community College when Ely Fire Chief Aaron Cooper pulled up and told him to jump in for a fast ride back to Ely and the American Legion Hall. As they climbed the steps to the meeting room, he heard applause starting.
“I turned around, grabbed the handrail on the stairs and tried to get out of there. They grabbed me and took me back in,” he said. “Jiminy Christmas.”
People were up on the stage singing his praises, but their words sailed past their intended target.
“I can’t hear worth a hoot,” he said.
Katie had also been corralled and had no idea what was afoot.
“What’re they talking about?” he asked her.
“You.”
“What’d I do now?”
Miller said, “They said they wanted somebody on the top that deserves it. I said I don’t deserve it, there’s more and others that deserve it more than I do.”
City Administrator Denise Hoy disagreed, telling the Economist, “A couple of people approached the city and wanted to somehow honor Jim Miller for his volunteering in Ely and other places through the years. The idea to carry on Jim’s legacy was something that came from that.”
An annual recipient of the award and “Jim Miller Day (formerly the Citywide Clean-Up Day)” were put in place to honor Ely’s volunteers and keep his legacy of service alive.
In 2016, Miller was diagnosed with cancer, and while it slowed him down a bit, and cut back on some of his volunteering, he continued to make every fire call he could, fulfilling a pledge he made years earlier.
“I told them I’ll quit when they carry me out, or throw me out, and I’m sticking to it.”
A visitation for Miller was held on Wednesday, June 10, at the Murdoch-Linwood Funeral Home and Cremation Service, in Cedar Rapids, with several area fire departments in attendance. A private funeral was held on Thursday, June 11, at his beloved St. Wenceslaus with burial at St. John’s Cemetery, in Cedar Rapids. Miller’s flag-draped coffin was delivered to the cemetery on the hose bed of an Ely fire engine, which led a procession of trucks from Alburnett, Anamosa, Palo, Hiawatha, Fairfax and others.
He received military honors, as well as a salute from the Linn County (firefighter’s) Honor Guard.
The flag and his fire helmet were presented to Katie.
Chief Cooper said, “Jim touched so many lives over his 43 years of service as an Ely volunteer firefighter it’s tough to know where to begin. Words like kind, generous and caring come to mind when trying to describe him. Jim’s smile and presence is already missed at the fire station but no doubt his impact on the fire department and community will be felt for years. His funeral service was a tribute to the type of person he was and the life that he lived.”
The Solon Fire Department placed Engine 132 and a full crew in Ely’s station during the visitation, funeral and graveside service, ensuring Ely’s district was covered.
In 2018, Miller said, “If somebody comes up and needs something right now, I’m there. I want to do it. I want to help them. Somebody needs something, I want to help them. I do it because I want to do it, not that I ‘have’ to do it. I figure I’m lucky enough to be able to do these things, why not help the ones that can’t do it?”