He’s gone down in history as one of Fair Haven’s most cantankerously enigmatic characters.
He’s the kind of small business icon and townie that you read about in a good fiction novel. He’s fondly remembered for his gravelly grumbling, sage car advice and jokes at the pump. He owned and operated, day in and day out, the Fair Haven Exxon.
He’s Ray Miller and he turned 90 on Monday, nearly as old as the town where he earned his patented reputation as the gruff, go-to gas station guy with a heart of gold.
He just might shy away from all the unsolicited attention, but, deep down, Ray Miller appreciates being remembered for the little things he was known to do for more than half a century at his business on River Road. And while he hasn’t been seen sauntering toward the pump armed with a cup of coffee, advice and a joke since 2005, his ways are not forgotten.
When Ray’s daughter Peggy posted a picture of her dad on the Fair Haven Facebook page wishing him a happy 90th, the comments pounded the comment stream like a tsunami.
People wished Ray well and remembered every little thing that Peggy says he always took pride in, like fixing kids’ bike flats, extending credit without a card, giving teens a good, gentle scolding to fix something in their cars that just didn’t sound right and chuckling at a good joke from a steady customer about town.
Ray Miller is one of those people who just did what he always thought was right in his business, expecting no fanfare and not caring if his ways rubbed someone the wrong way, Peggy reminisced.
Trying to get Ray on the phone for his birthday Monday was a rare feat. The line was busy all day long, because, you guessed it, he’s still a no-frills kind of guy who didn’t really expect all the fanfare and has one landline with no call waiting. Peggy, talking from her home in Florida, said she knew, though, that a friend had headed over to bring her dad some rice pudding and scratch-off lottery tickets — the only sort of things he's ever needed to make his day. Never mind the jolt of celebrity status.
“Good luck to anyone trying to get him,” Peggy said. “I haven’t been able to get through all day. I’m so lucky to still have him and my mom around. They live in Shadow Lake Village (Middletown) now and they’re doing great. Dad is still the same as ever. He taught me so much about the customer relations — the smile, hello and remembering every single person. And, to this day he’ll ask me every time I go anywhere, ‘Have you checked the car before your trip?’”
And she does. It’s an ingrained routine and ode to Dad.
Peggy worked for her father for 17 years as his bookkeeper and spent many a morning watching him open the station.
“He’d come in at 5:30 a.m., putter around, get his coffee, stick the tanks to check the level of gas and then tend to people all day,” she said. “So many people would look for him to tell him jokes in the morning, including Father Hickey (the priest at the Church of the Nativity), who would come in with his big Cadillac.” And Ray would, in turn, share the jokes he was told or just tell his own.
Along with his jokes, car advice and chiding, from 1950 until 2005 Ray gave out many maps to the kids in school, windshield scrapers and even extended credit on the honor system — something you’d likely never see happen today.
“It worked out just fine,” Peggy said. “People would come in and gas up and he’d just write it down and trust them to come back and pay it off at the end of the month. That was just the way he did it. And the people he trusted always paid their bills.”
What would Ray say was his fondest memory of his time at the station, which was first an Esso and later an Exxon? He had made it through many trying times in gas station history, like gas rationing, when lines were extended for blocks to get $5 worth of gas at his pumps.
But, “he’d tell you the people made everything most memorable. He really loved the community and the people in town,” Peggy said.
And, the comments on Facebook tell the story of how those people remember him and still think of him often.
“Who in town DIDN'T know Ray Miller?” Doug Newman said. “There is a guy who could write a fascinating book. Truly a pillar of the community … We were so loyal to Ray that we NEEEEEEEVER got gas at the Sunoco station.”
“I bought a lot of gas from Ray,” said Robert Candela. “I asked him once why we didn't have self-serve gas in NJ, and he heatedly answered, ‘Because we don't want it!’"
“I can hear him now....” Peggy said.
“You are not a true Fair Havenite if you don't know Ray Miller,” Jann Kiely Kelly said.
Robin Drake Fitch concurred, adding, “You couldn't live in Fair Haven and not know him. (I don't think it was even allowed!) I remember getting a lot gas at Ray's Esso Statiion!!! Happy, happy birthday, Mr. Miller!!!”
Carl N. Swenson recalled how Ray “re-inflated a lot of bicycle tires.”
“He took great care of my parents vehicles over the years and I even had the opportunity to work for him at the station,” Rich West said. “Wish him all the best!”
After finally getting a hold of her Dad after his flood of calls on his birthday, Peggy reported that he laughed and was a bit shocked and humbled by it all as he was read comment after comment. "Thanks for thinking of me," he said. "I must have done something right to have all these well wishes. I was just doing my job." Yes, he was. And a fine, memorable job it was.
For the longest time I, myself, thought Ray Miller’s name was Buddy, just Buddy.
My dad would pull into the station, get out of the car, pat him on the back and say, “How ya doin’, Buddy? Fill ‘er up with high test, Buddy.” I’d hear some grumbling and chuckling by the pump. Then my dad would say, “Take ‘er easy, Buddy!” And off we’d go.
Well, happy 90th Mr. "Buddy" Miller! Take ‘er easy!