The Death of an Old Soldier

Harlan Miller, 1915-2004

Mr. Miller, as he was called, was our beloved brother in Christ who taught us the meaning of perseverance and faith in the face of overwhelming adversity. His story is part of St. Paul’s story. He was known to the community as an impoverished hermit living in a two room shack. His will named St. Paul’s rector as his executor, and gave all that he had to the church. At his funeral his deceased veteran’s flag was presented on behalf of a grateful nation to his nearest living next of kin: the congregation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Harlan was born in the valley to a poor farming family. His formal education is uncertain. It’s likely that he worked for Whitman College as a young man, and in his thirst for knowledge he sat in on as many classes as he could. Steeped in late 19th and early 20th century literature, the ultimate word of truth came from his treasured late 19th century Encyclopedia Brittanica. What we know of those years was recorded in Latin in his daily diary. It revealed the ordinary routine of a young man painfully uncomfortable in society.

Mr. Miller entered the army shortly before the onset of WWII, and was part of the 1942 invasion of North Africa. He was severely wounded, and required years of hospitalization before he could reenter civilian life. We may never know what effect the war years had on him: his diary was mostly silent about them. We know that Harlan survived while those around him didn’t. He wasn’t a hero. He was just a poor farmhand, a little old to be in the infantry, doing what he knew had to be done for his country. He didn’t intend to get blown up in an artillery barrage. He didn’t intend to spend years in the hospital, or end up an impoverished and alone. He lived into old age, but some part of him was killed in war. In war there are many Harlan Millers.

We do know that once home in Walla Walla, he was unable to find regular work and got by with odd jobs. Though he was known as a hermit, he wasn’t alone. The congregation of St. Paul’s became his family. Among its members he found welcome, caring love, and respect. He seldom missed a Sunday, always sat in the same place, tithed with a few coins carefully placed in the plate, and was shyly reserved. He was dedicated to midweek bible studies, and congregational feasts where he held fast to proper etiquette as defined by his Encyclopedia Brittanica. The unsuspecting would be caught by surprise when he offered a few words of wisdom citing ancient Greek and Roman sources. Harlan’s one luxury was tea that he ordered from far distant sources. It was a badge of honor to be invited to his home for a cup of tea, served formally in cracked, mismatched tea cups. His carefully cultivated Irises adorned St. Paul’s landscape. As his years advanced, several members of the congregation made sure he had food, clothing, and heat. The youth group winterized his place as best they could. Increasing needs created problems: he was set in his ways: modern appliances and medicines were an unwanted invasion of his early 20th century world.

The shack was demolished after his death. A Habitat for Humanity home now resides on the property. His life estate of a few thousand dollars was divided between St. Paul’s, and a church he sometimes visited in Vancouver, B.C.

“Rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their home were honored in their generations, and were the pride of their times. Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born. But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their wealth will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance with their children’s children. The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their praise.” (Sirach 44)

5 thoughts on “The Death of an Old Soldier”

  1. Poignant and inspiring…and his memory us. Blessing, even to generations yet you be born!

  2. Your yearly remembrance of Harlan always leaves me with tears of gratitude for him and so many who have given us true examples of what it is to be faithful and true.

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