People from counties throughout Montana gathered in Harlem Saturday to remember and honor a man from the town who had spent his life serving others: Blaine County Commissioner and former Harlem Mayor Vic Miller.
“We all know God made only one of him. He was one-of-a-kind, and we all are better for having known him, ” said U. S. Jon Tester.
Ray Gone was master of ceremonies at the celebration of life held Saturday in the Harlem High School gymnasium — at Miller’s request.
“He said, ‘Ray is full of BS, get him to talk, ’” Gone said.
Miller, who was running unopposed for re-election to his third term as Blaine County commissioner, died from complications of diabetes Aug. 18 at a hospital in Great Falls.
The celebration was a mixture of tributes and eulogies, live music and Native American ceremonies in a schedule planned by Miller himself before he died.
Gone and “Buster” Moore started the celebration of life with a traditional Native American smudging ceremony — “A lot of bad things are carried, and we want to clean him up before he goes to the Creator, so he’ll be clean and fresh, ” Gone said.
Tester, who had played music with Miller as well as serving with him as elected officials, gave a eulogy, while former Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher spoke during the “Rule”-ogy fortion of the ceremony, and childhood and lifetime friend Richard Mohar gave a “Bull”-ogy.
A multitude of musicians including the Freeman Harper band — with drummers standing in as alternates for Miller, one of the founding members — played a musical tribute to the lifetime musician, including original songs, country, old rock, newer rock, jazz and a traditional Native American honor song.
When the band went into “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King with Barry Walden leading on vocals, the entire audience rose, clapping in time with the song.
The audience remained on its feet as Mike Talksdifferent and Willie Grey of Wild Horse Singers performed the honor song, and as Leon Main performed a rendition of Jimmie Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner” on his Fender Stratocaster.
Before the music started, Fort Belknap Indian Community elder Joe Ironman said a traditional Native American prayer for Miller.
After the music, Miller was taken outside of the high school where full military honors were performed.
After the ceremony, the celebration continued with a jam session and opportunity to visit and share memories at the park in Harlem.
Speakers in the high school reminisced about Miller’s life of service starting as a child, through his service in Europe with the U. S. Army, his long and continuing education — including two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s and coursework on a doctorate — teaching at the Fort Belknap college, serving as director of District 4 Human Resources Development Council and his time as mayor and commissioner.
Tester said Miller began his political career before starting elementary school, and furthered it throughout his education.
“He was a champion for social justice and a defender of the politically oppressed, ” Tester said. “Victor the political activist covertly led Harlem High School’s one and only social uprising and demand for social change. That’s the initiation of a new dress code allowing wearing long hair for boys, and wearing jeans for the girls. ”
He won over the hearts of everyone during his military service as well as earning his more-than-honorable discharge, Tester said, including becoming the honorary fire chief of a German town due to his beer-drinking skills.
Once back in Harlem, Tester said, he also continued and extended his connection and relationship with the tribes at Fort Belknap, which helped guide and create his life.
Others, while praising Victor for his dedication to public service and helping others, also showed another side.
Mohar said many might not realize Miller did not begin his musical career as a percussionist, for which he was well-known, but as a trumpet player. But, when he would bring his trumpet to class each day, the instrument never would work, to the consternation and frustration of the teacher.
It didn’t take Miller’s friends long to realize he was tinkering with the trumpet each night, making sure it wouldn’t play.
“He was just messin’ with the man, ” Mohar said.
In his part of the celebration, Kaercher read a letter from Yellowstone County Commisisoner Bill Kennedy.
“It’s really hard for me to stand up here today and read somebody else’s letter, because I have so many memories of my own, ” Kaercher said before reading the letter.
Kennedy wrote that it is hard to believe that Miller died at age 58 — hard to believe anyone could do so much in 58 short years.
“As many have said, God broke the mold when Vic was born …, ” Kennedy said in the letter. “No job was too small or too big for Miller. ”
But he also had a funnier story — as everyone seems to. While at a meeting in Florida, Miller persuaded Kennedy to go to Key West — he had to visit Margaritaville and pay tribute to Jimmy Buffet.
When they walked in, Miller went face-first on the floor, Kennedy said.
“I thought he had tripped, but, no, he was kissing the floor, ” Kennedy said, adding that Miller certainly knew how to party.
Tester compared Miller to an old coat that people always would grab because they know it will keep closed and keep them warm, the old dependable horse, the 1966 Ford a rancher always drove if a project had to get done — the Ford would do whatever asked of it till it ran out of gas.
“Well, Vic ran out of gas last Saturday…, ” Tester said. “That intelligence, that sense of humor, that musical brilliance, that love for serving the public that helped us fight the elements, that helped make our communities and our public a better place, now lives only in our minds and in our hearts.
“Vic always said, ‘I’m here to serve, ’ and that he did, selflessly, without prejudice, and always with uncommon common sense. Vic, you were one-of-a-kind … .
“To paraphrase what was said at the end of Elvis’s concerts, ” Tester said, “ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. Vic has left the building. ”