Public service and firefighting had always been a part of Joe Miller’s blood. The 66-year-old father of eight – including seven, count them, seven girls – and retired biology teacher from Suffern High School, where he taught for 36 years, is a testimony to what community and public service is all about.
Having logged in more than 600 fire calls and graduating from the rigorous New York State Firefighter 1 program in this past year-and-a-half, Miller says that it was something that he’d always “wanted to do.” Since he was a kid, when he visited the Poughkeepsie firehouse with his dad every Saturday afternoon, where his dad served as a paid city firefighter, Miller would spend the time climbing all over the trucks and engines.
Although Miller greatly enjoyed the camaraderie and the sojourns to the fire station with his dad, he enrolled in Marist College, where he received his undergraduate degree and then went on to pursue his Masters in Biology at St. John’s University. But his academic trajectory was soon thrown off when he was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War.
He was in the Army Air Corps en route to Officers’ Candidate School when he was in a tragic vehicular accident that crushed his hip. He spent 22 months in various veterans’ administration hospitals, where eventually they operated and placed a ball around his femur.
Miller stayed with the US military for several years post-operation, and then returned to civilian life, where he began substitute teaching at various schools to see if teaching was “a fit” for him. “I had imagined that I’d be in research; but with my years in the military and my accident, I had fallen behind the cutting edge and thought I’d give teaching a try to see if that was something I was passionate about.”
It turned out that it was. After subbing for several school districts, Miller went back to Marist College, took the required accredited courses to become a certified teacher and landed a job at Suffern High School: a 55-mile commute each way from his home in New Paltz, but something to which he felt dedicated.
Meanwhile, his hip wasn’t getting any better; in fact, the pain was causing him to overcompensate and began to tear at the cartilage in his knees. When he finally visited an orthopedic specialist in Dutchess County, he was told that a hip replacement would not only cure the pain in his hip, but save his knees as well. In 2006 he went in for the hip replacement and said that he came out feeling like “a new man. What a difference between the surgery I had in 1970 and in 2006! I didn’t even need pain medication, and I felt free,” he said.
With his new hip and through modern surgery, Miller said that he went straight to work on improving his conditioning. “I began walking four miles a day, and then went on to cycling 14 miles a day.”
Just as he got into great physical shape and retired from teaching, his wife decided that it was high time that they put an addition on their house. “That took five years and tons of physical labor, but we got our C of O [Certificate of Occupancy], and we now have two bathrooms! When we had our eight kids, seven of whom were girls, we only had one bathroom.” Now they have six grandchildren and a seventh one on the way.
After retiring, feeling the great improvement in his physical well-being, Miller wanted to volunteer for his local fire department. “I’ve always wanted to give back to the community, but with my job and eight kids and physical challenges, there just wasn’t time before. Now there is, and I joined the New Paltz Fire Department a year-and-a-half ago, and I greatly enjoy helping people, helping to save property and lives and being part of this family.”
Not only did Miller volunteer and take the weekly in-house training courses that the New Paltz Fire Department (NPFD) provides, but he also went on to take the rigorous state test, 86 hours long, with built-in class training and live fire training. He graduated this past December.
“I’ve taught that course for many years, and it’s intense,” said NPFD chief Kevin Maguire. “I had some in their 40s and a few in their 50s, but I never had anyone in their 60s! It is an incredible achievement and accomplishment that Joe graduated from this course, and we’re just very fortunate to have him in our Department.”
As the chief noted, the “call volume is increasing,” and they need all of the dedicated volunteers that they can get. “My main goal as chief has been to steadily increase our volunteer base, which we are doing. Yes, I’d love to see the 60-to-70 volunteers we’ve had in the past when I first began. But right now we have 35 volunteers; 20 are very active and well-trained, and that makes all the difference. People like Joe are such an amazing addition to our family and our crew.”
To date, the NPFD has reached a call-volume that broke any previous records. As of early December, it had exceeded 1,000 calls. “That’s way more than we’ve ever had in the history of the NPFD,” said the chief. These calls include extrications of vehicular accidents, structure fires, car fires, live wires down, water rescues and everything in between. “This has been a busy couple of weeks,” said the chief. “We’ve had several house fires and extrications, and it’s sadly historical that over the holidays we’re busier than ever.”
Asked what he found to be the most challenging part of his job, Miller said, “Rolling the hoses. I’m not as fast as the others, but I can roll a hose and free them up to do what they need to do.” He admitted that the “hardest part” of his job in the past year-and-a-half was “seeing blood and damage on a child in a car accident. That’s just hard to deal with.”
That said, Miller enjoys “helping people, putting out fires and restoring their homes, businesses…just helping people in need. And it keeps me in great physical shape!”