Bert Miller loved his family, church and the fire department
Charles E. “Bert” Miller will be known as a dedicated pillar of the community, and for his commitment as a fireman for 35 years. Yet, few outside his church and community service knew of his devotion and love for his family.
LuDene, her two sons Michael, 33, and Brian, 28, and daughter Heidi (Ayers), 31, along with their spouses, sat down with me for more than an hour this week to talk about their beloved Bert, who died Sunday after being fatally shot in church. Their faith, reliance on each other and extended family, and support from the community are helping the Millers cope with the loss of a husband, father and grandfather. The Millers reflected on both Bert’s lighter and humanitarian sides and how he made the family laugh with some of his antics. They also provided a glimpse into his role at home as the family’s patriarch.
A DEVOTED FAMILY MAN
“He was very devoted to family,” LuDene said. “I don’t think he missed a basketball games although the boys didn’t play. I don’t think he missed many soccer games.”
Michael ran track, but Heidi played soccer. LuDene, though, said Bert was good with the children, but better with the five grandchildren.
“He hasn’t missed a game from T-ball to basketball to soccer, ” LuDene said.
Heidi agreed with her mother: “He would do anything for his grandkids. They had him wrapped around their fingers. They all loved the pager.”
Life was interesting but fun-packed in the Miller household before their children left for college. In addition to his day job and the out-of-the-blue fire call, Bert also worked Tuesday nights at Fallon Theatres years ago to give then-owners, Bob and Mary Beth Erickson, a break.
LuDene said Bert would eat his dinner at the theater, and she would bring the children to see him. The children loved going to the theater although watching a movie was secondary.
“We didn’t have to sneak in,” Brian said with a grin. “He’d let us go in.”
Michael, though, enjoyed going to the theater and playing a card game with the student employees. When the movie began, he said they pulled out cards and played Uno.
Yet, it was Bert’s easy-going approach to life that elicited more laughs from his family. One story, though, moved the Millers from going to the theater to Bert being a practical joker.
“Remember when kids challenged him to a jalapeño-eating contest?” she quizzed her children. “Bert would say, go ahead.”
According to LuDene, the challenger was encouraged to begin. He would eat, then two, then three peppers.
“Then he was sweating,” she said, causing those in the living room to laugh at her retelling of the contest.
She said Bert would encourage the challenger to keep eating the jalapeño peppers while watching him. Ludene said Bert would look at the challenger and say, “You won.”
Michael, who moved with his family about six weeks ago to Salem, Oregon, where he took a position as one of the city’s engineers, enjoyed people-watching with his father. So did Brian, who said his father had nicknames for many of the people they saw. Both Brian and Michael smiled when referring back to some of his sayings. Heidi, though, said her father could be serious one moment, funny the next.
“He was always the quietest in the room, but when he spoke, we listened,” Heidi recalled. “It was something he was trying to tell you.”
At times, though, she said her father could be funny when she sat next to him.
Traci, who’s married to Brian, said Bert accepted her as an outsider and treated her as one of the family.
“I didn’t realize he was hilarious,” she said.
Bert enjoyed playing games at the firehouse. LuDene said people didn’t know he was an instigator. Bert would start a water fight by separately pitting two firefighters against each other. Once the combatants began shooting water at each other, she said Bert would quietly walk back to one of the engines and look at “something” like a gage or hose.
“He would stand back and watch,” she said. “He was very good at that.”
There was a time for play, a time for life’s lessons. Heidi said if they didn’t know if something was true or false, he would tell us to figure it out.
Bert and LuDene met in high school, but it took some matchmaking work from their mothers. LuDene said both moms were good quilting friends, and that’s how LuDene learned more about Bert. Then tragedy struck Bert’s mother.
“She got breast cancer,” LuDene remembers, “and when she was taken to Reno for chemotherapy, she told me ‘I wish you would call my son.’”
Two months later, Bert’s mother died.
LuDene, though, said Bert finally asked here out when she was in high school and for half her junior year and during her entire senior year, they dated. They attended family events, played cards, went for walks. LuDene said very few people outside of the family knew they were an item.
“When we announced we were getting married, half the town was appalled. ‘How dare you! You need to go out,’” said LuDene, mocking the naysayers.
LuDene graduated from high school 37 years ago and after she had her 18th birthday four months later, they married in the St. George (Utah) LDS temple on Oct. 15, 1981. Bert was 26 years old. LuDene said they have been members of the 3rd Ward for as long as she can remember. Bert also picked out his favorite seat.
“He sat in the same row in the back of the church for all these years,” she said.
When asked if she remembers any special dates with her husband, LuDene said every day was special with Bert because he always went beyond and above.
“I don’t think I ever took the trash out. He always did,” LuDene said.
Heidi said her father always filled up the gas tank for her mother.
“He took care of you,” she said, eliciting a smile from her mother.
Heidi said her father has, literally, been by her mother’s side through sickness and health. Several weeks ago, LuDene lost her balance, fell and broke her ankle. Additionally, she has fought cancer for three years, and for a 16-month span, she was in remission. Bert helped her with transportation to her chemotherapy treatments or to the doctors. He was there to assist LuDene. Ironically, because of her broken ankle, LuDene stayed home Sunday, the day she lost Bert.
The special times, though, between LuDene and Bert are too numerous to recount and to forget, but an Alaskan cruise five years ago with Bert’s siblings was a once-in-a-lifetime trip LuDene cherished.
“We left every child behind,” LuDene said, smiling as she looked around the room at Michael, Brian and Heidi. “It was a nice surprise when Bert said, “Let’s all go on a cruise.”
So Bert and Ludene and the siblings and their spouses sailed from Seattle on a seven-day trip and visited such well-known destinations as Victoria (Canada), Sitka, Ketchikan and Juneau. When the ship docked at one of the destinations, she said they would leave the ship and explore the area on foot. Luck, though, followed them when they stopped in Juneau.
“A sister-in-law had a nephew living there,” LuDene said “He took Bert and Duane fishing, and they loved that.”
LIFE OF PUBLIC SERVICE
LuDene said Bert’s ultimate passions other than family were the church and fire department.
“He came home and asked me (about joining the fire department). We had been married only three years,” LuDene said. “He asked what I thought.”
She told him to follow his passion. Bert’s acceptance into the fire department was noted by LuDene when his fellow firefighters picked him up at their house in a fire truck.
“In 35 years, he had a percentage of responding not below 75 percent,” LuDene said.
Heidi chipped in, saying her father strived for a 100 percent response rate.
“Last quarter, his goal was to get 100 percent. He did it,” Heidi added, revealing a tone of pride in her response. “He proved to the other guys it could be done with an 8 to 5 job, a family and a wife coming through chemo.”
Amanda, who’s married to Michael, said she was proud her father-in-law was a humble man, especially with his firefighting experiences or the number of calls to which he responded.
“He didn’t boast about it. He did it,” she emphasized. “I’m glad he did it by example.”
“He’s had cold dinners, dinners in the microwave,” LuDene chuckled.
“He grabbed rolls going out the door,” responded Ian Ayers, Bert’s son-in-law who’s married to Heidi.
The family, though, accepted his role over the years as a fireman and quiet community role model. LuDene said Bert would be gone all night on some fire calls, return home and then get ready for work.
“Even on those days, he never complained he was tired,” Heidi remembers.
Michael, who worked in the city of Fallon’s engineering department before moving to Oregon in June, joined the fire department nine years ago. Mike said being a firefighter gave him the chance to learn from his father and to spend more time with him.
“He loved having a son on the department,” LuDene said.
Likewise, Bert also kept an eye on Ian, a fellow firefighter, if they were on a call together.
“Even on fires, he (Bert) would send photos of my husband,” Heidi added.
Brian, though, decided to take a different route in his career, but he still wanted to serve his community as a first responder. In 2017, Brian entered Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) in Carson City and graduated earlier this year.
“I never wanted to be on the fire department side, but I wanted to be a first responder,” he said.
LuDene said Bert was proud of all his children because service was a big thing for him.
A VERSATILE MAN
Bert was the type of person who dropped whatever he was doing to help others. LuDene said their neighbor was preparing to lay sod to surprise his wife. Although Bert never laid sod before, he and his neighbor finished placing the squares in an hour and a half.
“Even back in mom’s final days, he was there for here … all the time,” LuDene pointed out. “He also took care of his dad.”
Thirty-eight years ago before Bert and LuDene married, Bert showed his closeness and love to his older brother, Duane, who lives in Utah. On his way to Fallon over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1980, LuDene said Duane’s vehicle broke down on a lonely stretch of the Salt Flats east of Wendover, stranding his wife and two small children. Duane called Bert and explained they broke down 400 miles from Fallon.
LuDene thought Duane’s only an hour or two from family in Utah, and it would be easier to reach out to family there. Bert felt he had a responsibility to help Duane and his young family.
“So Bert got a trailer, hooked it up to the back of a truck, and headed east,” LuDene recalled. “And then he loaded the vehicle, drove back here, fixed their car so they go could back.”
That wouldn’t be the first time Bert hitched the trailer to the truck and helped someone move. Heidi, who was doing her clinical rotation for radiology in Pahrump, had to move out of the house she was renting.
“He came down and moved me to the next house,” she said.
If he wasn’t helping others, he would find time to be with his family. LuDene said he loved to fish and spend time with the boys and on a trip to Ft. Bragg, California, he went deep sea fishing. His love for the outdoors translated into the Boy Scouts not only for himself but for Michael and Brian.
“I don’t think we ever missed a campout with dad,” Michael said.
Heidi said he like to hike with his children and because of her dad’s involvement with both his children and the grandkids, he felt he was a kid at heart.
“He loved doing scouting,” LuDene said. “He probably spent 30 years in the scouting program as an assistant scoutmaster and scoutmaster. He was also a scout but did not make Eagle.”
LuDene said cars and girls took his attention away — maybe one girl — she revised. Years after they married, Bert had an El Camino and restored two of them.
When the children were growing up, the Milers didn’t own a gun, yet LuDene said Brian showed an interest in hunting and asked his father if he could have a shotgun. She said Bert took an interest and hunted with Brian, and they even took a Concealed Carry Weapons (CCW) class together.
“He never did that before,” Amanda said.
Heidi cherishes the love her father had for his grandchildren. She grew silent for a minute, holding back tears.
“That’s what hurts the most,” she said.
But Heidi moved on to the special relationship they had. Thoughts danced in her head about the times she spent with her father and how they developed that father-daughter bond.
“I was daddy’s little girl. I couldn’t do anything wrong,” she said.
Both Brian and Michael groaned.
“He would go out and start her car or change her oil,” Ian said before Heidi left home for college or when she returned home before marrying Ian.
LuDene remembers those days.
“Stop,” I said to Bert. “She can do it herself. She’s a grown adult.”
Michael also kidded Heidi about sneaking out of the house when she was a teenager, which drew a quick response.
“I never snuck out once out of the house,” Heidi snapped.
“Then you snuck back into it.”
Yet, when one of the children wanted money, they heard a resounding no from Bert.
“If they wanted money, they had to earn it. Chores were part of the family so they didn’t get paid for that,” LuDene said. “If you want money, you need to work.”
Both LuDene and Bert were proud parents because all three children purchased their own vehicles and financed their college tuition, each attending a Nevada university or community college.
In one week, the Millers have seen their lives change in a way they never imagined. Saturday would have been Bert’s 62nd birthday, and the family had made plans to celebrate his special day; instead, they are now remembering his life, his contributions to family and the fire department and his love of the Lord. The community has also benefitted from a man who gave so much because it was the right thing to do.
On a personal note
The Millers sat down with me for an hour last week to discuss Bert and his special relationship with the family. The conversation with the family, which was upbeat and didn’t dwell on recent events, molded the responses for this article.
I have known the Millers for 30 years. Two years after moving to Fallon, we bought a house two doors from LuDene Miller’s parents near the Mormon church and Laura Mills Park. Our lives began to parallel each other in many ways, especially with our children being near the same ages as they attended the same schools. LuDene has been my banker for decades, and her son Brian and my second oldest son, David, are sheriff’s deputies but in different counties.
Both my daughter and Heidi Miller (Ayers) found their calling in the medical field. Michael, the oldest, and my oldest, Thomas, both the same age, became interested in what their father’s did. Michael joined his father in the volunteer fire department in 2010, and Thomas became involved with the journalism field, taking photos and writing sports stories for the Lahontan Valley News beginning when he was in junior high school.
It’s very easy to understand Bert’s love for the community and his commitment to the fire department, having served myself as a firefighter and EMT ambulance attendant in Wells for eight years in the late 1970s and 1980s.