They Called Him ‘Chief’ For A Reason, Part One

by | Jan 23, 2015

A portrait of Fire Chief Fred Miller that hangs at the EG Volunteer Fireman's Hall.

A portrait of Fire Chief Fred Miller hangs at the EG Volunteer Fireman’s Hall.

Growing up here in old East Greenwich was great for a lot of reasons.

There was the smallness of the town. The fact that it had three very separate and distinct areas; the Main Street town portion, the waterfront  and the farm country up in Frenchtown.

For me, it provided opportunities to do a lot of different things like quahaugging, hanging out on Main Street, riding horses, hunting, fishing, swimming and playing ball constantly.

But, one of the other things that was good about old East Greenwich, was the people. We had our colorful ones and our characters but we also had a lot of good people back then.

I guess you would call them role models now, but back then they were just people we saw all the time, and looked up to, and respected. They could have been a parent(s), a friend’s parent(s), coaches, teachers, counselors, priests or police, or, the guy down the street. They were all around, every day, and most of them provided examples and lessons that you might notice and hang your hat on. You would have had to have been asleep to miss them.

Oh sure. We had our 10 percent. If you have ever been in the service you know what the 10 percent means. They are the people who never get the word, no matter what the word is; or, the people who are only out for themselves and bang ho anyone else. They are around anywhere, small town or big.

But mostly, I felt there were a lot of good people to hang your hat on here in East Greenwich, and I saw them at church, in school, on the street, on the ball fields and in one of the places that served as a training ground for many an EG boy, the fire department.

The person I am writing about this trip is former East Greenwich fire chief, Fred Miller. He is gone now, but for many years around here, he was The Fire Company! He went back over 40 years, starting out as we all started out, as a volunteer, and working his way up to chief of the department, which he turned into one of the finest volunteer companies in the state.

Though I had a lot of exposure to him back then at EGFD, there was one thing about him that amazed me even then, and still does to this day.

Chief Miller, Fred, coached Little League baseball for over 20 years! In itself, that might not seem much. But, the kicker is, he never had a son! Only two girls (Janet and Diane) by his wife of many years, Jeannette. I always thought that was the most amazing thing.

Wanting to give back myself I got involved in Little League and Biddy Basketball here in EG while still in my teens. I saw a lot that shaped my thoughts on coaching for years to come. Many of those thoughts were brought about from the actions of parents and fathers, who only seemed to get involved because their sons were of age. They came in with their kids and left when their kids left.

Their kids, good or not, were always the feature pitcher, batted third or fourth, and always seemed to make the All Star team. I saw fights and behavior from adults that I was unaccustomed to at the time, but which was a harbinger of things to come, and which has become common down to the current day.

Yes, I know that Little League needs active parents in order to survive. And that most people will not get involved unless their kid is involved. I get that.  But. That’s what made Fred Miller stand out even more. He was there every year. Year in and year out with No Son on the team! He had “his boys” on the General Motors team, but they changed again every three years or so.

He was a good coach too, and his teams were always at, or near, the top. Fred also served as a Merit Badge Counselor for the local Boy Scout troops.   Having spent 45 years coaching high school myself, I have seen the antics, and the damage, that parents can do to their kids, and to the programs their kids are in. It is not a laughing matter. Still, what Fred did was, then, and has always seemed refreshing to me, and a model to follow.

Though, as I go along and tell the rest of the story about what made Fred great, believe me, he was not alone on my list of those standout people in EG, his example in Little League was that one thing I always admired him for. The ability to put forth the time and effort and service with NO Ulterior Motive was something that shaped a lot of my thinking back then, and also later in life. I can only hope I have come close to him. He was the embodiment of the selflessness and volunteerism that I saw on a regular basis back then. People like Ralph Marden, Father Joe, Reverend Pickells, Dom Iannazzi and others too numerous to name provided example after example and it was right in front of you for the taking.

Fred Miller was one of a kind. Not many can match the more than 40 years he served as fire chief in East Greenwich (more than 60 years in all). He gave his life to the fire department and to the town of East Greenwich.

One of his closest friends, George King, a WWII veteran and himself a firefighter, once said of him: “This town will never see another like him. You will not see someone who will put the time into this town the way he did!”

But, he not only put in the time. Just as he did in Little League coaching, Fred gave the town quality time and saved the taxpayers’ money time and time again over the years.

For many years his salary was $500 a year! Only after he retired from Bostitch as a toolmaker did he finally agree to a raise up to $2,500. Even then he would often split that money up to give to his deputy chiefs. The year Fred retired they hired a new chief at a salary of $18,500!

People tried to tell him he was crazy for not taking more money but he wouldn’t hear of it. He just wouldn’t do it and he never said why! He just didn’t. Maybe the word “volunteer” meant just that to him. No one will ever know. He never said then and he went to his grave without explaining why.

I kind of think that good men are made that way. Not a bad way to be.

Again, his friend, Mr. King observed, “He was curious like that. I guess he just felt that he was a volunteer chief, and everyone else was doing volunteer work, so that was enough. It was just the makeup of the man.”

Of course, just because he and the department were volunteer doesn’t mean they couldn’t be the best. Fred shaped the East Greenwich Volunteer Fire Department into one of the best in the state. Even the region!

Just like his championship Little League teams, Fred had the “boys” performing at a high level, looking and working “spiffy and sharp,” not only in their duties and their firefighting, but also, in the Muster and Firemen competitions that were held almost every weekend through the summer months.

An East Greenwich native, Fred joined the purely volunteer company in the 1920s. He always wanted to be a fireman, just like his dad, Gus Miller. In those days the department was filled with volunteers whose fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins and friends had served before them.

It was just moving from the point where the major equipment was a hand pump and hose, to where they had a horse-drawn fire truck. He was there for all of it, and in 1953 he saw the department add full-time dispatchers.

Of course, it has grown so much since then.

Fred, who served as president of the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association, was also induced into the East Greenwich Athletic Hall of Fame and chosen as Rotary Club Man of the Year.

In his day he was an outstanding all-around athlete, playing football and baseball for the old East Greenwich Townies. He was also an outstanding swimmer, winning a host of long-distance races back then like ones from East Greenwich Yacht Club to Rocky Point and from Warren to Rocky Point (five miles). He also won the Fall River and Narragansett Pier races as well.

All that experience led to his getting involved in youth sports, starting with Little League baseball, when it came to East Greenwich in 1953.

End of Part One 

Bruce Mastracchio grew up in East Greenwich and loves telling stories of his boyhood in a simpler time, in a small town, filled with outstanding people, amazing characters and adventures by the barrelful.

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