May 20, 2018
At the age of 98, Jo Miller remembers as well as ever the last time she saw her late husband and fishing buddy suited up for work.
It was three decades ago — 1988, the year Ben Miller retired from a career with the Santa Rosa Fire Department that he’d launched in 1956. After a huge City Hall retirement party, Ben and Jo Miller relocated to rural Oregon and spent many good times hooking salmon and steelhead in the Chetco River.
Miller, who grew up in Mendocino, had enjoyed retirement for about 15 years when he developed pancreatic cancer. He died in Oregon in 2004, at the age of 83.
“I miss him,” his widow said.
Jo Miller said everybody loved Ben, whose given name was Ethelbert and who was 6-foot-4 and animated.
“You couldn’t help it,” she said. “He was full of jokes and never forgot one. His personality was something else.”
After her husband’s death, the Texas-reared widow returned to Santa Rosa to be closer to family. At two years short of 100 years old, Jo Miller reasonably presumed all her life’s big surprises were past.
Then Santa Rosa firefighter-paramedic Scott Moder and several of his colleagues appeared last week at the door of her apartment in a retirement complex. Moder gave her Ben’s helmet, the one she’d last seen just before her husband retired as a battalion chief 30 years ago.
Moder, a 2003 graduate of Petaluma’s Casa Grande High School, just started his career with the Santa Rosa Fire Department. Having previously worked a firefighter-paramedic in Yolo County, he was hired by Santa Rosa last September and works out of Station 1 on Sonoma Avenue.
A short while back, Moder’s mother presented him with something she’d found online and thought he might like to have: An old, white firefighter’s helmet bearing a front shield printed with “Batt Chief SRFD.”
Moder’s mom had bought it for $25 from someone who lives near Rohnert Park and had found it upon purchasing the contents of an abandoned storage unit. Firefighter Moder, 32, was pleased to have it.
“It looked like it would be a good piece of Santa Rosa Fire Department history,” he said.
Moder also was curious about to whom the helmet had belonged.
He found inside on the band some faint lettering. He said, “You could barely make it out: Ben.”
Moder showed the helmet to his battalion chief, longtime SRFD employee Mark Basque. He knew from the name and the vintage of the helmet that its owner had been Ben Miller.
“He was a battalion chief when I got hired,” Basque said. He knew that Ben Miller had died.
Firefighter Moder set out to determine if Miller’s wife might be in the area. He posted photos of the helmet on Facebook and asked for help locating Ben Miller’s kin.
That post caught the attention of a woman whose father had been a SRFD battalion chief and whose mother knows Jo Miller. Soon, Moder had a phone number.
He phoned her. It was good that Miller was sitting down when the firefighter told her he had her late husband’s helmet, and asked if she would like to have it.
Absolutely, she would. She offered to pay for it. Moder told her he’d like to give it to her.
Jo Miller can only guess how her late husband’s helmet came to be in a storage unit.
When Ben retired he’d kept all of the badges he’d earned as he ascended the ranks to battalion chief. Jo has them framed behind glass and hanging on the wall of her bedroom.
She said that when her husband retired he left his helmet and turnout gear at the station. For a while, she remembered, they were displayed in the fire station lobby.
Evidently, at some point Battalion Chief Miller’s helmet was disposed of and placed into storage. Jo Miller marvels that it was purchased by firefighter Moder’s mom and that Moder sought her out and presented the helmet to her.
She tells of first meeting Ben Miller before he became a firefighter.
“He was living with his sister, two doors down from me,” Jo said. At that time, in the mid-1950s, Ben was working as a maintenance man at the now flame-destroyed Journey’s End mobile home park.
He joined the fire department in late ’56. It was clear to his wife, who worked for a time in Santa Rosa Junior College’s registration office and in the tuberculosis ward at the former county hospital, that he loved being a firefighter.
“It was dangerous, but everything is,” Jo Miller said. “He saved lives and risked his own.”
She likes to look at the helmet and remember when Ben wore it or carried it home after a 48-hour shift.
“He was a good man,” she said.
We honor you, Ben Miller.