The Other Side of 50 June 2011

A lifetime of experiences

By From page B6 | June 15, 2011

Duplicate greeting cards, but varied life herald Bob Miller’s 100th birthday

By the time Robert Miller of Placerville celebrated his 100th birthday recently, he had received many cards, filling up several shelves.

There were at least five that were identical, expressing best wishes on reaching the century mark. The greetings were sent with good wishes to a man who does not look 100 years old. But with a lifetime full of varied experiences and careers, Miller might as well have lived two lifetimes.

A dear friend, Leonard, wrote a poem relating Miller’s life to historical events. For example, Leonard said that the Wright Brothers were still testing their plane when Miller was born May 18, 1911 in New Jersey. When Miller was 7 years old, the country was involved in World War I, and his graduation from high school in 1929 was the same year as the stock market crash.

History in the making

In other words, Miller witnessed a lot of history during the last 100 years. He came of age during the Depression when Prohibition reigned. Looking incredibly handsome and wholesome in old black and white photos, Miller had no problem hitchhiking across the country twice.

“People were wonderful,” Miller recalled. “I could always get a ride. Then people would take me to a restaurant and say: ‘put away your wallet,’ this is our treat. Sometimes they would invite me to stay at their homes. Those were great times, much safer than today.”

He had much better luck, he said, than the raggedy men who carried their possessions wrapped in kerchiefs tied on broomsticks. “Oh yes, they were called hoboes,” Miller confirmed.

They were quite envious of Miller’s practical and elegant Gladstone bag, which he had purchased for $5, and went across the country with him.

Ribbon of highway

Among Bob’s favorite adventures are his memories of the Lincoln Highway, which has a lore similar to Route 66, with landmarks and stories of famous travelers back in the day.

A visit to the Carlsbad Caverns also is a highlight. Back in those days, the Carlsbad Caverns weren’t a State Park. It was dark, dank, eerie and fascinating in those caverns.

No smoking, please

There is some longevity in Miller’s family, but he is probably the first to have reached the century mark.

He received a letter from Smucker’s, and it was thought that he might be one of the 100-year-olds feted by Smuckers on television. Miller got a nice, congratulatory letter from Willard Scott, but apparently there are many people now turning 100.

He attributes his fitness to not having smoked and to exercise and good eating over the years.

Jackie, his wife, loves to bake, but she uses wholesome ingredients, and Miller has continued to be trim and fit.

One thing that Miller emphasizes in his conversations is that people should not smoke. Even if he sees strangers smoking, he urges them to stop.

He did smoke for a time but quit early on. Now at 100, his “no smoking” advice is taken to heart by those who see his smooth face and realize that he has survived a whole century despite childhood illnesses and being accidentally poisoned at work.

One of Millers’s first jobs in California was with the Union Oil company. After about a year, though, he became deathly ill.

Near death

It turned out that he contracted tetralethyl lead poisoning. He was near death, but he eventually recovered. His brush with death just made him appreciate life more. In those days, people took things in stride. It didn’t occur to Miller to sue his employers.

He is glad, however, that he survived his ordeal and that safety conditions improved over the years.

As soon as Miller recovered, he got a job at Safeway, where he worked for many years. From there, he went to Montgomery Wards, where he managed the sporting goods department. He enjoyed being in retail, and experienced quite a bit of success with his work ethic and amiable personality. He was attracted to law enforcement because of the salary and benefits, but was otherwise rather ambivalent.

Nonetheless, he became a law enforcement officer, and became a Deputy Sheriff in Contra Costa County, where he served until his retirement 22 years later.

Many adventures

Miller wore a uniform, but later became a plainclothes detective. He saw a lot that he would have preferred not to see, and in those days the Hell’s Angels were just coming on the scene.

Most of the crime Miller saw involved money.

“What people will do for money,” he mused sadly. “Some people will do anything for money.”

Coming to El Dorado County

Bob and Jackie moved to El Dorado County in 1964, having purchased some 80 acres in Somerset in 1962. It bordered a winery, and they enjoyed the country lifestyle. As age encroached, the Millers sold their property and moved to a convenient mobile home.

Though Jackie is Bob’s fifth wife, she had no reservations about the man she married. They’ve been married now for some 50 years, and Jackie celebrate her 80th birthday just a few days after Bob’s.

“I finally got it right,” Bob quipped.

But Jackie was confident. A widow, she had prayed for an honorable, hard-working man like Bob to show up in her life. She became a cherished stepmother to his three teen-age sons, and he became an attentive, beloved step-father to her three children. In fact, her children were so young that he was truly their daddy.

Old world values

Bob was a responsible, loving father who had custody of his three sons, including a set of twins. When he married Jackie, they were teenagers, but Bob told them in no uncertain terms that shenanigans would not be tolerated. So they towed the line, grew to love Jackie as a dear mother, and got along fine with her three children.

Bob had lost contact with his daughter from his first, early marriage but his daughter-in-law found her on the Internet. Judy lives in Stockton with her husband and children and now is part of the family, too.


Like his parents before him, Bob was strict. One of the things that Bob emphasizes about his life is that he was brought up with the structure and discipline. He, his brother and sisters knew that there were expectations to be upheld, or else.

It wasn’t overbearing or cruel, but they knew better than to test their limits. Since his parents were from Posen, Germany, he grew up knowing the value of hard work and the honor of a job well done.

Like many immigrants, Bob was raised with old-world values. The Lutheran Church was part of their lives, and church picnics and family gatherings — along with youthful escapades — was all a part of that life.

Bob’s father was a contractor who was a perfectionist.

“My father always said, that if it can’t be done right, don’t bother doing it at all.”

When Bob was a teenager, his dad woke him up at the crack of dawn. “Come on, son, it’s time to go to work.”

“But dad, it’s the first day of summer vacation. Can’t I sleep a little more?” Bob responded.

Bob said that his dad told him that if he didn’t work, he wouldn’t eat. Bob worked hard.

It served him well, and his father stayed extremely busy until the Depression years hit, and suddenly his father said: “I don’t understand what is happening. Suddenly there are no projects.”

That was after Bob had worked many years with his dad and ended up learning just about everything there is to know in the trades.

Learned many trades

“Throughout my life, people would always say, ‘Bob, how do you know how to do that?’ I just learned all these things. An electrician showed me how to deal with electricity, and a plumber showed me the deal with plumbing, and eventually I learned all of it,” Bob said without conceit.

It’s one of his fondest memories, people asking him throughout his life, ‘how do you know how to do so many things?’

Working for the CCC

Bob was too young for WWI, and was 4F for World War II as the result of childhood disease. Apparently Bob had Scarlet Fever as a child that left him quite thin and nearly deaf. Apparently he also had severe tonsil problems. To this day, Bob’s tonsils are intact, but in those days before antibiotics, he was fortunate to have survived. For a while as a child he was debilitated and sickly, according to Jackie. But that didn’t stop him from excelling in sports in high school, especially track.

It also didn’t seem to affect Bob’s working career. When he hitch-hiked across the United States, he wound up in Idaho, where he got a job with the Civil Conservation Corps, one of the entities created during the Depression to provide jobs. Bob worked in the logging industry, and became a strong, strapping young man.

From Idaho, Bob moved to California.

“I never liked cold weather and snow. I remember asking someone from California what the weather was like. When I learned that the weather was always mild, I said: I’m going to California!” Bob said.

Settling in Oakland, Bob lived in a boarding house, but remembers that he could buy a great breakfast for 35 cents.

More cards and wishes

When his wife Jackie hosted a gracious open house, family, friends and neighbors showed up — along with more cards.

As is fitting, Bob was feted for nearly his whole birthday week, with several celebrations, including one at the First Nazarene Church, where he and Jackie have attended since moving from Somerset to Placerville.

Two of Bob’s sons came from Washington state to wish their dad a happy birthday, and his other son lives near Mt. Aukum.

Miller is still sharp and healthy. His reveries are very interesting, and it is obvious that he is delighted by the variety he experienced in his life.

Knowing how to do a lot of things, growing up with good values and his opposition to smoking are the most common themes.

Between knowing lots of things in the building trade, interacting with people in retail, and seeing the worst of life as a Deputy Sheriff, Bob has a lot to share. But as a young man who grew up with strong values, he continues to be a force in his family and society, as he remembers and upholds the morals of days gone by.

He’s a fount of knowledge about the last century and a beacon of hard work, discipline and good old-fashioned values.

Susana Carey Wey

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