George Miller fished, sheltered Synanon kids

07/22/2010

Dozens of yellow sticky notes plaster the inside of George Miller’s cabinet door—random reflections, poems, an appeal to resolve some long-forgotten domestic squabble. A more recent note stuck on top of several others reads, “I love you. Let’s be happy. I can’t stand all the gloom.” Others read, “Compassion is a dull double-edged sword that doesn’t cut you or kill you—it just beats you to death,” and, “If there is a judge, you are it.”

George, who died suddenly last week from a heart attack in his Dillon Beach home, was as eclectic and spontaneous as his cabinet door. He was a fisherman and a scholar, a free spirit and devoted father. “He knew what would make him happy, and that was to be free,” said his wife, Salli. “He did what he loved.”

George was born on August 18, 1944 to Francis and Arlene Miller in Chillicothe, a small town in southern Ohio. Francis was a civil engineer who worked for the B&O Railroad and Arlene was a registered nurse at the local hospital. George’s magnetic personality made him popular. He loved his friends, and was close with his four sisters.

When George was 15, the family visited Arlene’s family in Sausalito. When they arrived, Arlene decided that they would not be returning to Ohio. They moved to Grass Valley, where Francis got a position at a small private company. Arlene transferred to a nearby hospital and George enrolled at Mount St. Mary’s Catholic school.

Catholic school was hard on George, who was already frustrated by having to relocate so suddenly. The nuns were abusive, and berated and hit George with yardsticks. He was frequently in trouble. Once, after a nun called him a “dumb bunny,” George threw a typewriter at her. Other times he would act out simply to get sent to the cloak room, where he could sit in peace and munch on other students’ lunches.

After transferring to Nevada Union, George started dating a wealthy girl named Patty. The romance was not to last. After a quarrel, George looked for advice from Patty’s best friend, Salli. “He asked me if I would go out and talk to him about the problems they were having, and we’ve been together ever since,”
Salli said.

George’s family loved Salli as well. “We knew Patty. She was nice, but she just wasn’t Salli,” said George’s sister Suzy.

There was an instant connection between George and Salli, and they soon became inseparable. “He taught me how to drive,” Salli said. “I can’t believe my father would let him do that, because all we did was go and make out.”

Every Saturday, George would go to church and confess that he had been kissing passionately. “And then he’d come back to the car and we’d do it again,” Salli said, laughing.

After graduation, George went to live with his aunt Toots in Sausalito, where he took classes at College of Marin and worked as a water meter reader. George sampled the full spectrum of classes, from archaeology to literature to hard sciences. “He was into everything. He was a really intelligent person, who just went off in all directions,” Salli said. “He couldn’t get enough of anything.”

George’s interest in the world carried through his entire life. “A lifelong student and a voracious reader, he accumulated knowledge relentlessly and used it to try to help himself, and those of us with whom he interacted, better understand the world we live in,” said lifelong friend Peter Laufer.

George and Salli took breaks from dating, but always found their way back to each other. They were married in May of 1964. The newlyweds moved to Fairfax, where George got a job at Fairchild Semiconductor, mixing chemicals for $60 a week. To supplement his salary, he worked as a guard at Kentfield Hospital and delivered The Chronicle in Greenbrae and Kentfield in the middle of the night. That year, Salli delivered their first son, Mark, at Marin General Hospital.

George lost his job at Fairchild after the economy started to turn sour in the late 1960s, so the young family moved back to Sausalito. George opened up a service station with a friend, and soon opened a second in Mill Valley. Salli gave birth to their second son, Peter, in 1970. “They were real hippie days. It was wonderful: the best days of our lives,” Salli said. “But I got this sense that it wasn’t great for our kids.”

Mark and Peter attended public school in Marin City, where they were part of a minority of white students in an African American community. Salli remembers when Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver would speak at
Mark’s school.

They moved to an old slaughterhouse that George had renovated on the Bay Ranch near Marshall. Fairchild Semiconductors asked him to return, but he declined. “He got a taste of freedom, and he would never go back,” Salli said. He cut firewood and built wooden surfboards with legendary surfboard shaper Gary Young. He made friends with a group of hippies living in a railroad car belonging to actor Sterling Hayden. His new friends would come over to use their bathroom and attend the occasional party.

Just over the hill from George’s home was the compound for the Church of Synanon. Bald teenagers seeking asylum started arriving at George’s doorstep in ones and twos. George sheltered the runaways until they could relocate with friends or family members. “No one said anything. It never became an issue. We just did it,” Salli said.

George’s income was not enough to support a growing family. “We were getting poorer and poorer,” Salli said. “I was getting more and more worried, and George was becoming more of a free spirit.” George became a commercial fisherman, and eventually moved to Dillon Beach. He fished from Morro Bay to Oregon and taught the trade to his youngest son Peter, who remains a commercial fisherman.

In 2003, George retired to make crab pots. “[His pots are] appreciated up and down the coast as utilitarian evidence of perfect craftsmanship—craftsmanship so delightful to witness that my wife Sheila and I hung a sample on our wall, displayed as the work of art it was,” Laufer said. Pot weaving is considered an art form among commercial crab fishermen, many of whom say George’s pots were the best they had ever seen.

George spent his last days with his family, and will be missed by all who knew him. “The Kris Kringle-like twinkle in his eyes as he told poignant stories or laughed along with those he was hearing from others is a treasured memory that will keep George Miller alive for me always,” Laufer said.

 

George is survived by his wife, Salli; sons Mark and Peter; sisters Sue, Gretchen, Teresa and Kathleen; numerous nieces and nephews; grandchildren Jessica, Christopher, Kristina and Joshua; and his very special cat, L.B.