The tributes to Les Miller

Les Miller (17 May 1935 - 7 June 2005) 70 years

Eulogy given by Leon Sadubin, Honorary Life Member of the Woodworkers' Association, at the Service of Thanksgiving, St Paul's Church, Burwood, on Tuesday 14 June,  with contributions by David Muston, Ginny and Simon Sadubin with thanks to Sandy and family.

Les Miller  17.5.1935  –  7.6.2005  

We have all come together today, to farewell a beloved family member,
and for most of us here, a wonderful friend –  a most remarkable man –
Leslie McLeod Miller.

Most of Les Miller’s childhood was spent on his parents dairy farm at Ward’s River on the road to Gloucester on the NSW mid North Coast.

Cold moist mornings and rides on the slow but steady drafthorse to the local school were early memories he recalled. Other memories, vivid and powerful were of the heavily laden troop trains working ponderously northwards towards the Second World War. The rail line ran adjacent to the Miller’s farm and Les recalled running alongside, talking to the young soldiers leaning out of the train.

Les’s father Norman MacLeod Miller also enlisted in the Armed Forces. Les’ vivid accounts of his dad’s experience in North Africa, in the desert sands at El Alamein, was another story which percolated into the consciousness of his family, his friends and workmates.

The Miller family moved to Sydney when Les was 12 years old and settled at the old family home at Kogarah. Les was an accomplished boy soprano and had some memorable performances at the Sydney Town Hall and the Conservatorium. He continued to sing, admittedly at a lower key, at every possible occasion throughout his life. An A grade cricketer and a Queens Scout, Les’ life already had a sheen to it.

Following his  secondary schooling at the selective Sydney Technical High School, a young and enthusiastic Leslie Miller was apprenticed to the NSW Railways as a coachbuilder at the Eveleigh Yard near Redfern. Les learned his trade at the end of a glorious era in the woodworking trades, characterised by a working knowledge of Australian timbers, skills in the use of hand tools and heavy workshop equipment and a practical experience in a vast array of related crafts. There was very little that Les Miller did not know about woodworking, and it was here, at the Eveleigh Yard, where the knowledge which insisted on being shared, was first honed.

Nicknamed “Skeeter” - no doubt for his gangly legs and arms, his quick pace and determined movements - the young Les was let loose about the vast rail yard. Supplied with a timber tool kit strapped to his back and hauling a heavy sash cramp (making his arms work even harder),  Les carried out repairs on the timber passenger carriages which lined the yard.

Following his practical apprenticeship, Les was determined to extend his technical skills and sought work in an engineering drafting office, where planning, calculating, designing and specifying became inherent skills. Again, knowledge was gained which was to be shared throughout his long career.
Some time later, at a ballroom dance, Les met the love of his life Sandra Denney. The two, by all accounts, made an exceptionally handsome couple on the dancefloor. They were married in 1960 and thus launched what became an enduring partnership. A partnership which in every way was larger than its two key players.

A fortuitous drive by the NSW Department of Education to enlist experienced tradesmen to teach Industrial Arts in secondary schools allowed Les Miller first to study at Sydney University Teachers’ College, then to enter the education system, within which, he flourished. Initial postings took Les and Sandy to the North Coast towns of Macksville and Ballina,  followed by a long appointment at Asquith Boys’ High School ( where I first met him as a fellow teacher ) and finally Galston High.

Les Miller was, above all, a profoundly committed educator.

When Leslie wasn’t running his high school classes in woodworking and metalworking, technical drawing and material science, by day, he would be at Hornsby Technical College running Clerk of Works courses for young builders, at night.  Not only would he teach the technical trade calculation and costing components, but also the language and public speaking courses.

Les’s teaching style was both robust and egalitarian. He had boundless energy, and could keep up the flow of information despite all odds. At the same time he would ensure that every individual in his class – child or adult - got a look in, received a fair share of his time, was treated with the care they each deserved. Every person in the class was important to him.  He could be friend and at the same time be an effective teacher.   He knew how to set boundaries. He was a gifted educator.

And that is merely the tip of this iceberg. Who ran the popular Asquith Evening College woodworking classes for adults, for years on end?  People used to queue to get into those classes.  Who organised the school’s time table each year,   and threw himself with great relish into the School’s Cadet unit?  And who ran the daily school assembly with vigour and humour and discipline and grit?

As a teacher, Les exerted authority  with compassion. He was always absolutely fair. He always seemed to have good rapport. 

Attached to the frame of his classroom blackboard, was a small quote printed in brightly coloured letters. The inscription read:
“ I shall pass this way but once.    Any good therefore that I can do,

      or any kindness that I can show, to any human being , let me do it now.

      Let me not defer nor neglect it.  For I shall not pass this way again.”

Les stuck to this precept – it was his underlying guide and explains his motivation.  And because this man was so durable and determined to give, he looked after the needs of those around him, in good times and bad. He always seemed to be doing something  for someone else.

But as you got to know Les Miller, you realised that despite all these diversions,
one part of Leslie’s mind was perpetually focused on a single point:

The Miller family:   Sandy,   Peter,   Lesley,   Lisa   and   Paul. And of course Les’ sister  Ruth and his wonderful mum Ida.                            .

Les and Sandy set a course for the Miller family, and Les held firmly to the helm, never submitting to any storm that dared cross their bow. There obviously was plenty of rough weather to endure,  but never was there a navigator more capable of sustaining his vision and  maintaining his course.

The pride that Les and Sandy took in the younger Millers was palpable:
Peter has achieved such an empathy with his congregations in the UK. 
Leslie has chartered  a phenomenal legal career in Europe.
Lisa has attained great skill in her chosen career of computer design.
Paul and his wife Natalie have created a wonderful  family and raised two delightful daughters and adored grandchildren: Rochelle and Kristy.  Paul runs a successful business. Which gave Les much satisfaction.    

All this is no surprise, given the strength of this family - the commitment and absolute love that Les and Sandy have bestowed upon it.

But back to Les:

Whenever you said to him   “G’day Les how are you going?”  his response wasn’t just  “alright”  or  “ok”  ……..it was invariably:    “I’m dynamic”

On a practical level, Les had  “a great pair of hands”.  They were truly useful. They were always productive.  A Les Miller handshake was memorable.

On a spiritual level, Les had an enduring Christian faith,  manifested by good works.   He kept his faith in a personal and private mode.   He accepted and enjoyed the diversity of human nature, human beliefs,  and expressions.

And Les could laugh………. When he laughed his face would crease and his eyes would virtually disappear. He always made others smile. His sense of humour was well developed. His humour was always generous. His wink always carried a message, which was always understood.

Les was a wonderful whistler. You could always hear where he was, when he was coming, or when he was going away.  Always,   with a twinklle in his eyes.

And then,  Les became a broadcaster. He needed to share his skills with an even wider audience .          He was no Boofhead………

The Weekend Woodies, on ABC Radio, ably run by Simon Marnie and nicely balanced by the contrasting characters of Les Miller and  Peter Masia, is a broadcasting coup. Les derived huge satisfaction from this role, he was truly in his element, and not surprisingly had a devoted following. The involvment with the ABC was one of the highlights of Les’ life. He referred to the ABC as a wonderful family.

And let’s not forget the Woodworkers Group of NSW of which he was a founding member in 1978. Les made it his business to ensure the Groups’ continuity when it  went through the doldrums in the 1990s.  He was also a contributing editor to the Australian Woodworker Magazine, as well as a widely travelled demonstrator for the Working with Wood Show. At the time he also produced many instructional videos, on woodworking and related practical subjects.

And Les….was….well….. just a bit of a “lair”.  He was naturally very virtuous – always a gentleman, however, just below that surface, resided a very healthy larrikin.  He was never phased by authority and while he was not inclined to buck it, he certainly enjoyed testing it. And he had a way of disarming  potentially difficult situations with his wonderful wry humour, spoken in that quiet way of his.

Les’s favorite motor vehicle was his powerful but less than beautiful Leyland P76.  I can distinctly remember Les doing a screaming U turn on the busy Pennant Hills Rd. at Thornleigh late one night, with his head and one waving arm protruding out of the window,  and a big grin rapidly disappering into the night.               

Les……… you probably believed you had a few more years of things to do, of skills to share, of love to lavish, of smiles and laughs and good times. But it did not turn out that way.

All I can say is, that we all are, grateful to have known you for so long…….
That you really had the strength, to persevere……            
That you were so generous……. That you lasted for seventy very full years……...

And that whenever we remember you, it will be with respect, with good humour,  and with a great fondness.

So it is, from us  all,    farewell Les…..

As you, so often said on departure, in your quiet voice:   Hooroo  mate.

Sydney Morning Herald, June 18, 2005

The charmer who could fix anything
Les Miller, Weekend Woody, 1935-2005

I will never forget the only time we tried to prepare a joke for the Weekend Woodies on the Saturday morning program on ABC 702. Les Miller had another commitment so he had to leave the show early. It was typical of Miller, nearly twice my age, to have twice as many jobs on the boil.

He wasn't happy about having to leave 15 minutes early, so I suggested we turn it into a joke. At 10.45 he was to say he had to leave, so could someone please call him a taxi. On that cue, Peter Masia and I would yell "You're a taxi". Not a great gag, I admit, but not bad given the level of humour we revelled in every week.

Come the appointed hour, Miller kept doing what he loved doing most - talking to listeners and solving their problems. Quietly panicking, I asked meekly was there something else he had to do? "Oh no," he replied.

"Are you sure?" I asked.

After much unsubtle prompting from Masia and myself, the penny dropped. Realising this was the time for the joke we had set up, he delivered the feed line: "Oh yes, I have to go. Can someone phone for a cab?"

It was typical Miller, and once again Masia and I doubled over in the uncontrollable laughter that so frequently fractured our program.

There was nothing contrived about him. We could never write the humour because it was sheer, natural, gut-felt joviality. It was also indicative of the dedication he had to so many members of the community that he would constantly overcommit himself. All causes were good causes, and no one could be ignored in Miller's efforts to let the world know that it was OK not to know.

Leslie Norman Macleod Miller was born in Lidcombe to Norman and Ida; he had an older sister, Ruth, with whom he shared a mad sense of humour. The family moved to Werris Creek then to a dairy farming community at Wards River where, while his father was away serving in World War II, he learned many of the practical skills and the work ethic that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

I always wondered if he had the same skip in his step that I saw in the radio studio 55 years later when he was a child walking barefoot through the frost at dawn to feed the poddy calves. The sense of wonder he had as a boy was something else he retained throughout his life.

Les was an accomplished boy soprano and gave legendary solo performances at the Sydney Town Hall and the Conservatorium. He'd always oblige with a re-run of O for the wings of a dove, though in a somewhat lower key and with more than a small twinkle in his eye. He sang his way through life and had a distinctive and melodious whistle.

He became a Queen's Scout and was a keen A-grade cricketer. As an adult he'd go in to bat for all kinds of people.

He wooed his life partner, Sandy, on the sprung timber floors of Sydney's great dancing venues. I can see him at the Tivoli or the Trocadero, ever the gentleman, enchanting his fellow dancers (and Sandy) with his mischievous grin, debonair style and suave sophistication. He was a modern man of the old school.

Later he was to enchant audiences all around Australia. Shona from Willoughby summed it up on the ABC website dedicated to Miller: "There are few people who can be recognised as a true gentleman by the masses, despite so few having met him personally. He exuded charm and kindness, and one of the most endearing qualities about him was that he was seemingly unaware of how much the public loved him."

I discovered him by accident. I had just taken over the Weekend Show and had managed to find and slot in most of the regulars. But listeners kept asking, nay, demanding, to have "that old guy who talks about wood". It took a while to find him and, anyway, all spots were full. Also, I confess, I couldn't for the life of me see how an "old man talking about wood" could be that interesting, let alone sustain half an hour of radio. Boy, was I wrong.

Within seconds of their pairing, Masia and Miller were talking like old friends, and all the double entendres of the DIY world came flooding out. Miller kept Masia and me in line as we tried to overwork cheap gags about "tongue and groove", tools and "having wood". He was the glue that held us together.

As well as his radio appearances he worked as a demonstrator at the Working with Timber and Wood shows across Australia, was on the panel of ABC TV's New Inventors, had published one book, with another in the wings, and was a tireless supporter of woodworking guilds and associations across NSW. All this at an age when most people had retired.

He enjoyed having the time to talk to and educate the public - we'd see this at the Easter Show or an outside broadcast, such as this one remembered by Richard of Campbelltown: "After listening to the Woodies for many years, I finally met Les at an outside broadcast at the Powerhouse Museum. Les not only answered my question with great skill on air, but also took the time to speak to me off air later. He wanted to make sure that I had understood his answer, and gave me more practical tips to help me with the project. That generosity with his knowledge was so characteristic of Les."

Through our five years together I gradually discovered the myriad aspects of Miller's world. At the outside broadcast from the Powerhouse Museum he revealed that after studying at Sydney Technical High School (where he came in the top 1 per cent of the state in year 12) he worked as a carriage builder, restoring the old wooden carriages for the railways. He also spent some years in mechanical engineering.

Not content with his achievements, he enrolled in TAFE and later at Sydney University Teachers College, where his future role as a teacher was cemented.

Miller was an inspiration to many students for the next 30 years, teaching at Macksville, Ballina, Asquith, Galston and Trinity Grammar. Of the more than 300 entries on the ABC Radio website that flooded in after his death, many were from people in whom he had instilled a life-long dedication to the craft skills and techniques of a master woodworker. Rob from Castle Hill, who worked with Les at Galston High, wrote: "It was always a pleasure to drop into Les's woodwork room while we were teaching together at Galston High in the late '80s. On one occasion I was admiring a finely turned piece of hardwood, such as he invariably produced. Les related that he had procured the piece of wood (and several others) from the wood box in a pub at Bourke where he had been staying while doing itinerant HSC marking. He couldn't abide the thought of burning good quality Pilliga Scrub timber. A man of wit, faith and integrity."

And a dedicated family man. He was immensely proud of his identical twin sons, Peter and Leslie, with whom (small world) I attended high school; his daughter, Lisa, who as a profoundly deaf girl found that her father was there to fight tenaciously, not just for her rights in education and life, but for those of others as well; and his youngest, Paul, who with his wife, Natalie, delivered two grandchildren, Rochelle and Kristy.

Miller was a founding member of the group that became the Woodworkers Association of NSW and a life member of the Australian body. He was also associate editor of its magazine, and worked tirelessly to keep it alive. Every year he and his fellow members of the NSW association made toys for children in hospitals around the state.

Miller was seen off in great style at St John's Church in Burwood, the spiritual home of his and Sandy's Christian dedication. The church was packed to its New Zealand Kauri rafters, the congregation seated on northern NSW red cedar - details that I include in his honour.

On his 70th birthday, as he faced his second battle in as many years against cancer, this time leukaemia, he looked me in the eyes and said: "In the words of another man - I'll be back." I think it was the only time in his long and adventurous life he was wrong. And the first time he'd come across something he couldn't fix.

Whenever I asked how he was, his reply was, "Wouldn't be dead for quids", or "Dynamic!" Miller's honesty and enthusiasm extracted the same from many people. The feeling is perhaps summed up in a postcard from a listener, sent just hours after he died:

"Dear Simon,

Returning home on the ferry last night, I wept for you, as I listened to your eulogy for Les Miller. You will, we all will, miss him. I am consoled when I imagine him sitting on the right hand of God, chatting to the famous carpenter son. Very soon they will be running Tool and Boofhead of the Week on Radio Trinity.

Ted from Berowra."

Simon Marnie with Peter, Leslie Macleod Miller

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