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Ceremony Conveys Spirit of Roy Miller 'Beyond the Reef' : Friends Recall Lion of a Lifeguard Who Patrolled Long Beach

December 26, 1985|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The red chair, which had been his throne in the sand, was empty. It was decorated with a wreath and other flowers that spelled "Cap," which is what the other lifeguards called Roy J. (Dutch) Miller.

Those who loved him and whom he loved came to a memorial service at the beach Sunday and the reminiscences they shared about the man who was dedicated to saving human life in the ocean brought saltwater to their eyes.

Many of the 300 mourners were men in their 50s, 60s and 70s, whose days of saving stricken swimmers are long past, but who still look vibrant enough to hurl themselves into the sea at the first sign of distress, just as Cap had always insisted they do.

Miller, 84, died Dec. 13. Arteriosclerosis had a large say in the death but Miller's nephew, Dick Miller, said his uncle "just wore out." That surprised a lot of people.

"A fella like him was so strong you'd figure he's never going to let go," former lifeguard Bill Jessup said.

A reminder of his strength was displayed near the podium that had been set up next to the gray lifeguard headquarters building that bears Miller's name and sits below the bluffs at Cherry Avenue and Ocean Boulevard.

It was a large, faded black-and-white photograph of Miller taken on the beach in his 20s, not too far removed from Poly High School where he played on a state championship football team. Tall, tan and well-muscled, he stood erect, smiling and squinting at the camera, an unmistakable figure of authority even if his trunks hadn't identified him as captain.

That was back in the 1920s, when Miller had just begun to build the city's Lifeguard Department and his own legend. He became captain of the lifeguards in 1922 and headed the department for more than 40 years before retiring in 1965.

As the many people he touched in that time mingled on the parking lot, waiting for the service to begin, the beach was quiet, except for the surf's low roar, but the men who had worked there could probably still hear Miller's voice piercing the white mist and berating a guard who had the audacity to sneak a snooze.

"He had a voice like a lion," said George Timberlake. "He didn't need a megaphone."

Timberlake, a former football star at USC, worked for Miller in the 1950s.

"I was in awe of Cap Miller," Timberlake said. "He was commanding. He could generate an allegiance from people he associated with. He took care of a lot of guys, gave us summer jobs so we could get through school. But you couldn't be a goof-off. He expected you to do your job."

Everett Brown and Clifford Thiede, who started working for Miller in the 1920s, attested to that.

Lifeguards could drive their cars on the beach in those days, and Miller had a red Model A Ford. If he caught a lifeguard sleeping, Brown and Thiede said he'd drive up right behind him, sit there for a while, then blow his horn and give him hell.

"I worked here on the beach for him for 37 summers," said Scotty Deeds, 63, retired athletic director at Cal State Los Angeles. "He probably had more common intelligence than anyone I've been around."

Miller used that intelligence to make beaches safer. He is credited with many innovations.

Lifeguards used to communicate with one another by using smoke bombs, and they'd fire rockets to let the patrol boats know that a guard was coming out to make a rescue.

That wasn't so efficient. Often the rockets would fishtail along the beach instead of soaring into the air. Miller, who was the first to use rescue boats and lifeguard stations, solved the problem by installing a phone system.

Before the Long Beach breakwater was constructed in the 1930s, the surf turned horrendous when the moon was full, and pulling a victim to shore was strenuous, precarious work. So Miller developed the torpedo can or buoy can, a device bathers could cling to.

He also brought uniformity to the profession, making sure that wherever bathers went they would recognize lifeguards (blue jackets, red trunks) and their equipment.

The men who worked for Miller grew to love him despite the fact that he always scared them.

Carl Halsted, track coach at Millikan High, started as a lifeguard in 1954 and retired three years ago.

"He put the fear of God in you right off the bat," Halsted said. "If you asked for an extra day off, he'd chew you out and you'd go out shaking. An hour later the phone would ring and he'd say, 'Don't forget that day off.' "

Halsted remembers Miller as "everybody's dad."

But he was the real dad for Roy (Bunny) Miller. Bunny's feelings were printed in the memorial service program: "When God made my dad he threw away the mold. There will never be anyone quite like him again."

Bunny kindly declined to elaborate on that. "My wife will tell you about him," he said.

His wife, Jeanie, explained: "They were very, very close. He has a hard time talking about Dutch.

"He gave everyone in our family a feeling of commitment. He taught commitment."

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