Miller – Man of many dreams (Inside the Outdoors Dec. 12, 2008)

On June 29, 2002, a monument was erected at Keystone State Park by the officials of The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission honoring Harry Miller for his lifelong efforts to improve the lives of persons with disabilities by providing "Shoreline Enhancement" areas through PA state parks. The original concept was developed at Keystone State Park. Miller died Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008 at the age of 58.

-Photo submitted by Keystone State Park

When I met Harry Miller somewhere between 25 and 30 years ago, he had told me he had just harvested his first deer. To anyone hearing of this, it may not have been any big deal. But for the sports enthusiast, the Latrobe resident was physically challenged.

Miller was on the job approximately 33 years ago when a tree branch struck him in the back crushing three vertebrae. Admitted to the hospital, he would spend up to two years not only recovering from the accident, but learning a new way of life, living in a wheelchair

What was to follow changed his life forever. The night before he was to be discharged, Miller was exposed to two children in St. Francis Hospital who couldn’t walk, talk or hug their parents or even tell them parents how much they loved them. They were born without arms and legs and had mental disabilities that prevented them from communicating. Many things went through his mind – his past, his family and his future.

After seeing the youngsters, the avid outdoorsman decided to piece together some ideas that would become beneficial for the physically impaired.

One of the many dreams that became a reality was having the state install accessible fishing sites that would benefit physically challenged and handicapped anglers with accessibility to the lakes and streams from as many areas as possible, not restricting them to just piers that would limit their potential to take part in a sport that they love.

So, the founder of the Pennsylvania Sportsmen for the Disabled presented his proposal at a meeting with personnel from the Bureau of State Parks and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission with suggestions on how the access areas could be laid out.

“Constructing them,” explained Miller, would not be difficult, and the cost factor would be nominal,” he told me. “Once a model would be positioned at one of the lakes, civic organizations and volunteers could avail themselves of their services to put similar designations at other state parks.” When the go-ahead was given, Keystone State Park Lake area became the first site where the disabled access area was developed.

According to the Westmoreland County Department of Public Works, 900 lineal feet of a handicapped accessible Omnistone walkway was placed leading to the fishing dock on the southern shore to the spillway at Mammoth Dam. In the fall of that year, there was a span of an estimated 70 feet that was installed to be used as a handicapped accessible bridge that was set over the spillway so that pedestrians would have access on the northern shore of the lake. In 2007, Laurel Hill State Park made its premises handicapped accessible as well. Before long, handicapped accessible areas around many lakes, both county and state, were constructed, thanks to Miller’s ideas.

Former manager of Keystone State Park Dennis Stebick pointed out back in July, 2002, “Harry has been a guiding light, calling for improvements that so many others have followed. His shoreline enhancement efforts have opened up a whole new world to park anglers and other visitors who might be limited by physical obstacles.”

In addition, the Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League member laid the groundwork for making a section of Conemaugh River Lake, Bow Ridge Recreation Area, a designated physically challenged, accessible hunting area.

But even though he had his legs amputated in 2006, and was very ill in that same year, he wasn’t held back from fulfilling his goals. Whether he was aiming at deer, bear, or turkey, Miller was an accomplished hunter. There were times he had to be tied to trees in order to get his game. He also loved his fishing, pursuing that sport as well. His philosophy - not to let his disability get the best of him – and it didn’t.

Kristian Baker, park manager for Keystone State Park, spoke very highly of the University of Pittsburgh graduate by stating, “Harry Miller was a devoted volunteer at Keystone State Park and will be greatly missed. He was involved in many philanthropic acts, but one exceptional act of kindness which touched the hearts and souls of so many was Special Day for Special Kids at Keystone State Park. This truly special day of entertainment brought joy to 100’s of children with disabilities each year. It took a great deal of time, energy and devotion to pull this day off, but Harry loved to come through for the kids. This day gave children with special needs a chance to experience a variety of fun and educational activities, such as fishing, pontoon boat rides, puppet shows, live music, dancing, magic shows, a petting zoo, clowns, prizes, a picnic lunch, and nature games and crafts. It’s amazing that this event was completely free to the children and their families. Harry was a kind and talented volunteer that we, and many others, will never forget,” he remarked. Miller was the founder of that program.

Most who knew Harry, could most likely write a book about him. As I see it, he set an example for many who thought disabilities can hold one back. If anything, Harry’s life should encourage those to always try for one’s dreams.

Needless to say, we are going to miss you, my friend – your constant smiles, your unselfishness and your pursuit of happiness for others will always be remembered. Thanks, Harry.

Article by:
Paul J. Volkmann (December 10 2008)
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