Cover Stories

A Driven Life

Loren Miller, a retired Auburn Correctional Facility officer, talks about being threatened by a gun-toting drunk, spending weeks in a coma and how kung fu helped him turn his life around

By Joe Sarnicola

Living the Dream: Loren Miller of Auburn plays in two bands, The Petty Thieves, a Tom Petty tribute, and My Buddy’s Band, which plays classic rock.

Loren Miller’s life has been anything but dull. The Miami, Florida-born pastor of Auburn Christian Church has been threatened by a gun-toting drunk, spent weeks in a coma, become an educational counselor, achieved kung fu mastery and is a professional musician.

He was as surprised as anyone about his achievements because he struggled early in school and even wondered if he had a learning disability.

He spent the first eight years of his life in Miami, where his father, James Earl Miller,  owned a small plumbing business. In 1960 his father attended a Billy Graham crusade.

“That was it,” he said. “Dad sold his business and packed us all off to Enid, Oklahoma, where both he and my mom went to the seminary there.”

After assignments at a couple small churches in Oregon, the Miller family ended up in North Carolina when racial tensions were still very high. His church was a white congregation, but his wife had invited an African-American woman to be a guest musician, angering some of the church members.

Miller remembers one particular incident. “I went to the store and a drunken racist was there,” he said. “He knew who my father was. He pointed a shiny, new .357 Magnum in my face and threatened to kill me. Luckily for me the store owner said to him, ‘Don’t shoot him here, you’ll ruin my new carpet.’”

The drunken man just nodded and left the store.

Even though the school year was only half over, with Miller a senior, the family moved to Auburn, where Miller became the pastor of Auburn Christian Church.

“We lived in a trailer until the church was able to buy a house for us to live in,” he said.

Although he continued to struggle in school, Miller graduated from Auburn High School in 1971 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in counseling and psychological services from SUNY Oswego.

By the early 1980s Miller was married with four young children and working as an education counselor at Auburn Correctional Facility. Within 10 years he had been promoted to assistant deputy superintendent for programs.

“I oversaw the guidance unit. Each inmate had an assigned counselor. I even wrote a few computer programs,” he said.

On what was expected to be another typical day at work, Miller collapsed in a hallway at the prison. He was diagnosed as having had an attack of acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, a neurological disorder that causes swelling in the brain and spinal cord.

“I spent almost three weeks in a coma and there was a risk I was going to die,” he recalled. “My brother, Vinson, visited me almost every day and continued talking to me. Eventually I woke up.”

Upon regaining consciousness, he was partially paralyzed. So he needed the use of a wheelchair, and his vision was very poor. He said the only thing that kept him from giving up was thinking about his family, especially his children. He spent several months in recovery at St. Camillus Skilled Nursing and Short-Term Rehab in Syracuse. He also had to retire from his job.

Of course, the same drive that motivated him to try to recover also motivated him to try to leave the facility. “One evening my [now former] wife brought one of my dogs to St. Camillus. The hospital staff brought me by wheelchair toward the front door. I lined the dog up to the front door, held on to its leash and said, ‘Hike!’ The dog then began pulling me in my wheelchair toward the front door. I was almost a free man! But then I was stopped by two nurses,” he said.

Miller still had no intention of giving up.

“I was encouraged when one of the doctors told me I would be OK. My vision was starting to return but I still had double vision and blurring after several months. So I was declared legally blind. I also had some other disabilities,” he said “Now I am fine. All I am missing is some of my memories from the 1970s and early 1980s. Before I was ill, I was a normally functioning individual.”

Miller attributes his internal drive to his lifelong practice of kung fu.

“In my opinion, my kung fu experience gave me the internal strength to not only lift myself from the coma I was in, but it has given me a mental toughness that I have found handy in handling life’s problems,” he said.

His style of kung fu is wing chun, the same style studied by Bruce Lee. Miller continues to practice kung fu and serves as an assistant instructor at classes with a local teacher, called a sifu.

“I am not aggressive. I am a peaceful warrior,” he said.

He has also pursued another hobby, which he blames on Kiyuh, a dog who did not like to walk, only run. He said Kiyuh is the name of a mountain range in Alaska. He bought the six-month old puppy from a breeder in Constantia. The breeder called and asked if he wanted to buy Kiyuh’s brother, Yukon, as well. Miller did, but found the dogs liked to fight with each other. So began his foray into sled dog racing.

“I loved my dogs and they seemed to know it. I never treated them like livestock which is how other ‘mushers’ treated their dogs,” he said. “I beat the breeder in a race and he wanted to buy Kiyuh back.”

Miller made his first sleds with materials he could afford.

“The very first race I was in must have looked a sight to the other dog mushers. They all had trucks with dog boxes on them. I drove up in an old Chevy Nova with my sled on top of my car and all the dogs seat belted into the back seat,” he said.

Eventually one of his dogs jumped over the six-foot fence of his kennel and ran away. Miller was never able to find him. After the deaths of his other dogs, he retired from sledding.

Music has been another constant in his life from the time he was in eighth grade. He plays guitar a bit, but his main instrument has been keyboards.

“I used to play with bands over the summer when school was out. I have played in a lot of bands since then,” he said.

Miller has used his talent for music to operate a side business as a piano tuner since 1997.

“It seemed a perfect vocation for me since I had a musical background and an aptitude for tuning by ear,” he said. “I also had a desire to do something purposeful with my time that could generate some income.”

Not long after that decision he met another piano tuner, Mike Kurta. The two became good friends. Kurta taught him a lot, including how to take a piano apart for repairs, and encouraged him to join the Syracuse chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild.

“Joining the PTG provided opportunities for me to advance my skills and meet interesting professionals in the field. Mike offered invaluable support and encouragement for which I will always be grateful,” he said. “It was a sad day for me, but a happy day for him, when he moved back to the Midwest to be closer to his children and grandchildren.”

Miller currently plays in two bands, The Petty Thieves, a Tom Petty tribute, and My Buddy’s Band, which plays classic rock.

“Music lifts me up,” he said. “I love it.”