Remembering virtuoso Harford harmonica player Gene Miller

Some folks we've known nearly all of our lives, some we've just met, yet feel like we've known them just as long.

Like a well-worn shirt they become part of the fabric of our own lives. When these folks depart from this world it leaves us wondering what made them so special to us and others.

Gene Miller, who died from cancer on Dec. 1, was a special friend not only to me, but to just about anyone who had the good fortune to become acquainted with his gentle manner and warm smile and his virtuoso harmonica playing.

I haven't known Gene that long, and the first time I met him he gave me the once-over because he wasn't too sure what I was up to. It was my first visit to Pop's Place, that farm near Level with the barn where everyday folks come to play bluegrass music, sit and knit and share news of the week with one another. I sat with Gene many a night at Pop's Place (Pop was the late William Hicks) and one long afternoon to talk about his life and times.

My editor, Pat Wallis, plays the harmonica as Gene did and the two of them struck up their own special bond some time back. After Pat had a couple of heart attacks and a triple by-pass, I suggested he accompany me to Pop's in hopes of lifting his spirits. Pat felt right at home and it wasn't long before he and Gene were fixtures at the back table, playing along to whoever was up on stage. We were both humbled and obligated to sit with Gene recently to talk of life, of Pop's and how bluegrass music brought it all together.

Totally under the radar of the fast-paced life around us, the folks who farmed, who worked on trucks and drove them rolled in to the Hicks farm, Pop's Place, weekly to dance, play and listen to music with friends and family.

Gene was born June 10, 1929, in a North Dakota farmhouse. There were three sets of twins, a sister and Gene. His parents gave him a harmonica when he was about 6 and he went through the house blowing in and out.

The way Gene tells it, he figured he had best learn to play it or else his parents just might take it away. The first song he learned was "Jesus Loves M" and it remained a favorite till the day he died.

Just before Thanksgiving, I sat with Gene and Dorothy in their kitchen on the Hicks farm. Pat came along, too. Before any conversation was started, Gene asked to play the harmonica for Scott and Arlyn, his son-in-law and daughter.

"Pat, let's try something in A," he said.

As I listened to the warm sound of the two harmonicas, Dorothy chimed in, "Well, he also wakes up in the middle of the night when he can't sleep and I can hear him playing the harmonica."

Needless to say, harmonicas had always been a large part of Gene's life. So was singing…more of that later.

The urgency to sit and talk with Gene that day was clear, for he was dealing with very aggressive cancer.

"I'm trying to tough it out," he said. "The mass was shrinking, but now it's on the move again. At my age we prayed and opted out of chemotherapy."

Early on Gene worked construction jobs, ending up in Abingdon building a new post office there and the lady he would later marry, Dorothy Hicks was baking in Santoni's Market. Gene caught a whiff of her sugar cookies and soon met the love of his life. Dorothy's dad was William Hicks, who was a big fan of bluegrass music.

Pop Hicks would travel to Bob Farrington's Mobile station on Route 1 in Hickory to listen to music on weekends. Popular with the locals, the venue eventually had to close down because of parking along the busy road. The music then moved to a coon club setting, then the VFW near Poplar Grove, the fans following along.

Something closer to home was in his mind, and Pop was in his 80's when he decided he would achieve "an old man's dream"...much to the consternation of his close friends who doubted he could.

"I'm sorry, but that's an old man's dream that will never come true," Linda Stoval, a local clogger, commented at the time.

Pop began cleaning out his barn, putting in a concrete floor where there had been dirt, buying surplus doors to make paneling for the walls. He hoped to have a place where people could come and listen to local talent and enjoy the company of others.

From the beginning, Pop wanted some rules followed, such as no alcohol and no fighting. Good, wholesome music and good, wholesome people. Nothing wrong with that. These original rules are posted near the barn door for anyone to read and heed.

His dream was coming true, folks pitched in. Carmine Coleman, Bud and Paul Campbell, Bob Padget and others. They poured the concrete floor on a Tuesday, Dorothy recalls, "and by Friday evening we had music in the barn for the first time." It was October 1995, cold weather, a crock pot, some hot dogs and coffee, a chunk stove and an outhouse. Later, a kerosene heater, indoor bathrooms and interior decorating brought the place into shape.

From the day he met him, Gene was enthralled with Pop Hicks. Gene was in love with his daughter, but he quickly formed a close bond with his future father-in-law. He grew to love Pop and became an integral part of the family.

"He was an amazing man," Gene says, with tears of love and respect in his eyes. "I would drive him to listen to music all over the place, and now he could have music on his farm." Friends donated their time, materials and cash to provide amps, lighting and whatever else they saw was needed.

Gene and Dorothy originally were not big fans of bluegrass, believe it or not. They went together 13 years and were happily married 15 years making it a 28-year love affair.

For many years, Gene sang with the Chorus of the Chesapeake and the Bay Country Gentlemen, two of the more prominent a cappella male chorus groups. He also sang with many smaller barbershop groups and won many competitions.

The night after Thanksgiving this year he was able to sing with the last quartet he was active with, The Old Gray Hairs.

"Yes, the old gray mare ain't what she used to be," he said. The group of friends and fellow barber shoppers as they are called huddled in Gene's room and sang "Lida Rose" and "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" with reckless abandon. Through the brief visit Gene had with his old friends, they sang and shared a story or two as Gene sat on the edge of his bed.

Gene was married twice before he married Dorothy. His first wife, the mother of his four children, has since passed away. Our talk was going deep at this point, so I pressed on.

"Now that you're coming to the end of your life," I asked, "do you have any regrets?"

"My one regret," he said without hesitation, "is that I didn't tough it out with my first wife. I should have just forgiven her, but I couldn't."

A little aside in our conversation, as is always the case when you spend time with Gene. He mentioned an article he had read in Reader's Digest many years ago. The article talked of a survey about marriages and why they failed. It seems the primary reason for failed marriages was sexual problems. Second, money problems, he recalled after all these years.

There was a third category Gene mentioned... "miscellaneous and sundry."

For many years he didn't understand what that one meant and when he and Dorothy married, he flat out told her he hoped he never found out what that third one was.

But as we talked, Gene let me know he finally figured out what miscellaneous and sundry means.

"It's the health or things that you have no control over," he said.

Even though Gene is gone, I suspect the covenant built between Gene and Dorothy will surpass any survey in Readers Digest or any other magazine.

Another event Gene mentioned was the day Pop died.

It was June 10, 2001, Gene and Pop had planned on going to a bluegrass festival in Westminster. Pop was not able to make the trip and died late that day.

"I loved him with all my heart," Gene tearfully recalled.

In the time I had the pleasure of his company, I felt like had known Gene a thousand years and developed the same sentiments for him as he had for Pop.

Time waits for no one and making the moments count adds up to precious times. So it was that Gene Miller showed us all a special time the minute he walked into our lives.

With a warm, gracious smile and the soul of a troubadour, Gene is still teaching us all the special meaning of life and friendship, of good times and counting your blessings.

He had the heart of a hundred men. It was good to know him.

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