Lima native Wayne “Johnnie” Johnson made sure the nearly 500 Americans who perished around him during his more than three years as a prisoner of war in North Korea would not be forgotten.
Roy R. Miller, who served in the Army stateside during the Korean War, worked to ensure veterans like Johnson would be remembered.
Johnson, using scavenged scraps of paper, compiled a list of his fallen comrades, where they died and what they died from. In 1953, when a truce ended the fighting in Korea and freed Johnson, he turned his list over to military authorities. The list was filed away, and seemingly forgotten. Many of those on it were listed as missing, presumed dead for decades before Johnson’s list resurfaced, earning him some overdue accolades, including a Silver Star and a sign designating Reen Drive in Shawnee Township “Johnnie Johnson Way.” He died in 2011.
Miller, Johnson’s one-time neighbor on Reen Drive, was memorable in his own way. Besides his efforts to make sure Korean War veterans were recognized, Miller, who operated an optical shop in Lima for four decades and was a habitual volunteer, pitching in for many causes. In 1999, when he was pushing 70 years of age, he volunteered to go through Army boot camp again — five decades after his first go-around.
He also was an avid, lifelong runner, competing in the Boston Marathon eight times and running races into his 80s.
“All my life, I’ve always said there are doers and don’t-ers in this world, and there aren’t many in between,” he told The Lima News in May 2006.
Miller, a no-doubt doer, was born September 20, 1929, in Fulton County, the youngest of Roy Drayton and Ethel Miller’s eight children. In 1954, he married the former Evelyn Frances Birsen and the couple were the parents of two sons, Christopher and Neil, and a daughter, Stephanie.
He graduated from high school in Sylvania in 1948 and is a member of the school’s hall of fame. Miller was working part-time at a gas station when he spotted an ad for optical work. “It was a nine-month training for no pay, but as he wasn’t making much, anyway, his mother encouraged him to try it,” the News wrote in May 2006.
“He taught me everything in that shop except examining eyes,” Miller told the News. “You have to go to college for that.”
And Miller wasn’t going to college; he was going in the Army courtesy of the draft. While in the military, Miller became friends with a dentist, who knew an ophthalmologist who needed someone to fit glasses. “Miller ended up transferred to a hospital in New Orleans and had to stay there as he learned of friends dying in Korea,” the News wrote. “I’ve always had a guilty feeling for never going overseas,” Miller told the News.
“So, when he wanted to represent Korean veterans in a Memorial Day parade, he decided to march even though parade organizers didn’t want him,” the News wrote. “Before long, he had 30 veterans show up in his Lima office, ready to start a Korean veterans’ group.” The chapter was named for Johnson, Miller’s old Reen Drive neighbor.
Elliott Rose, a veteran of both Korea and World War II, told the News in November 2008 that Miller “really started the chapter here in Lima by starting to march in parades all by himself to represent Korean War veterans.”
Miller brought his boundless energy to Lima in 1961, opening Lima Optical with James Thompson at 706 W. Market St. In 1974, Lima Optical became Miller Opticians, located at 875 W. Market St. He eventually would expand to eight offices in three states.
Along with fitting glasses, Miller also made artificial eyes, a skill he frequently talked about in speeches to area service clubs. “I find it rewarding to make an eye, because I know I am helping someone,” Miller told the News in March 1963.
That desire to help was translated into a lifetime of volunteering. He was the first male room mother at St. Charles School, served as president of the Lima Kiwanis Club and the Ohio Optical and Ocularist Board. Miller led the effort to license artificial eye makers in Ohio and won national awards for innovations in the field. He also supported and volunteered for the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Encore Theater, Civic Club, and at a program for inmates at the Lima Correctional Institution designed to help them deal with substance abuse.
In 1999, the 69-year-old, recently retired Miller volunteered to re-enlist in the Army. “I thought of this back when John Glenn was in space,” he told the News in April 1999. “It could be a great opportunity to see what happens to old people under this type of activity.” In 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. At the age of 77 in 1998, Glenn, after undergoing training, returned to space on a flight of the shuttle Discovery.
“Miller, who still wears his Army dog tags around his neck, has flooded the offices of U.S. Sens. George Voinovich and Michael DeWine and U.S. Rep Michael Oxley with letters pleading for admission into the nine-week (boot camp) training program,.” The News wrote. “His letters have gone unheeded. He is undaunted, though, considering he is nearly twice the maximum age to enter boot camp training.”
Although the Pentagon passed on Miller’s offer, Comedy Central couldn’t resist. In August 1999, a correspondent from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart interviewed Miller for a segment titled “Saving Private Grandpa.”
“They had me do a lot of funny things,” Miller told the News. “Cleaning toilets, peeling potatoes, running up a hill in Faurot Park. It was a fun day.”
That Miller could still run up a hill in Faurot Park at the age of 69 and consider enduring the rigors of boot camp was a testament to his lifelong love of long-distance running, a sport he took up as a third-grader shortly after his family moved to Kentucky from Northwest Ohio. “His speed made him a popular choice for games, which Miller took to heart after being teased for being afraid to ask the new teacher to go to the bathroom,” the News wrote in May 2006. Miller competed in marathons all over the country, including at Boston eight times, and was competing in 10-kilometer races at the age of 80.
“I’ve never stopped,” the then-76-year-old told the News by way of explanation.
Miller never did really stop until almost the end of his life, running the halls of an assisted living facility until Alzheimer’s Disease finally stopped him. He died on February 20, 2015, five years after his wife’s death. He is buried in Gethsemani Cemetery.