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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Vaya Con Dios, Sam Miller

Samuel Marvin Miller
my mentor as I remember him
An old friend and mentor is retiring from the ministry. A pastor friend from my Lone Star Camp staff days told me this morning that Sam Miller was hanging up his gigantic flashlight and riding off into the sunset. I am certain he will be missed.

I haven't seen Sam in a very long time. His wife Carol is a Facebook friend so I know a little bit about what they've been up to. There is an assortment of very fortunate kids and grandkids these two have produced and Sam's popped up in all sorts of places in the West and Southwest in photographs with that easy, lop-sided grin on his face that I remember from when he was my camp director.  I'd been a camper at Lone Star Camp, deep in the piney woods of East Texas for several years during the 60s under Elder Burns, a legendary director, who trained Sam and others and taught a generation of Texas Adventist kids how to refrain from drowning themselves while playing near the lake. So long as one of Elder Burns' waterfront staff remained on the job, we never had so much as a single opportunity to resuscitate a camper. We had a few sneak off and scare us so that we dragged the swimming area, but no one drowned during camp.

In 1971, I became a baptized Adventist and my best friend, Mark Miller, Sam's little brother, helped me get a job at Lone Star. It was late in the season so none of the scholarship positions were left. So, I worked that summer for $10 a week as a trash hauler, wood chopper, hole digger and bathroom scrubber. Sam Miller was our camp director for the summer. He was still in college and just married. Elder Kilgore, the conference youth director was out at camp with his family off and on shuttling between camp and the conference office. Sam had the day to day management and he'd learned his craft well under Elder Burns.

I learned a lot watching Sam's leadership techniques. Years later as a youth leader, I borrowed his style when working with kids. Camp staff were mostly young single people and we operated in a hormone-charged atmosphere. Sam recognized the inevitability of youthful romance and also the dangers. We'd all gather down at the boat dock of an evening to play guitar and smooch in various corners of the dock. About eleven or so, we'd here footsteps on the stairs leading up to the dock. Now Sam didn't always make sounds coming up the stairs. He could sneak up on you like a panther on a rabbit if he wanted to. The footsteps were a warning. Then, Sam's lanky figure would stroll out onto the dock and pause for a moment, looking up at the golden summer moon. The "long moment" gave staff members, coupled up on the dock, time to disentangle de-osculate and get their hands out where he could see them. Then you'd hear a click and it would suddenly become daylignt.

Sam carried around a flashlight that looked like a car headlight attached to the top of a car battery. It turned night into day. The dock would empty like roaches skittering out of the kitchen when you turn the light on at night. Some more enterprising couples moved to other places around the camp to do their canoodling, but they reckoned without the fact that Sam had been a young staffer too and had a thoroughgoing knowledge of where all the best canoodling spots around camp were. Couples would be out on the swimming dock or one of the diving towers or drifting along in a canoe and all of a sudden the night would be turn to day and Sam would be standing there looking up at the moon.

"Time to go in," he'd say in his slow laconic Texas drawl. And that was it. No chewing people out. No recriminations. No discussion of the danger your behavior posed to your soul. Just, "Time to go..." And there were no serious indiscretions that I know of. Sam's little brother and I did get in trouble a couple of times for running around camp at all hours of the night, but Sam just told us to basically cut it out and we sorta did. We at least managed to go places where he didn't have to worry about our hormones getting us into too much trouble. He slowed us down a little and we managed not to damage ourselves or violate any of the local native women.


My first couple of years on staff, I watched how Sam managed groups of kids and staff in his laid back style. I took my first life-saving class with Sam, where we swam laps carrying heavy objects (and once while filled with hornet poison, but that's another story). I was one of those people with significant negative buoyancy (I sink), so Sam used me as a practice dummy because you had to really swim hard to keep afloat.

The big thing I learned from Sam was to keep a sense of humor.  Sam always seemed to get the joke that the rest of us had failed to detect. He once wrote me a letter of recommendation that read in part, "Tom marches to the beat of a different drummer."  What a lovely way of saying I was kind of a weird kid. I almost took offense. You know how serious a 19 year old can get about himself. But then I decided Sam was right and embraced my weirditude and it seemed to work for me. I'm still a little weird, but, thanks to Sam, I get the joke and I quit taking things so seriously a long time ago.

I learned these lessons from Sam:
  1. Never take youthful angst too seriously and don't let them suck you into it.
  2. Discipline gently. A soft word works better than a hard stick.
  3. Respect the people who work for you and the kids you work with.
  4. Give kids time to obey. They want to make you happy, they just have that initial instinctive resistance to overcome and if you give them time, they'll come around.
  5. Don't push too hard. Managing kids is like trying to roll a giant blob of Jello around. If you push to hard in one spot, the whole thing will come apart.
  6. Let 'em know you are coming. It preserves the illusion for them that they actually have the ability to govern themselves.
  7. Issue no empty praise. Don't praise the person, praise the deed. Don't say "You are a great canoer!" It doesn't help them learn. Instead say, "Your J-stroke is coming along nicely. I can see how straight the canoe tracks for you now. Very good!"
  8. The best way to get a kid to cooperate with you is to tell them what they are doing that pleases you and then stand back and give them time to do it.
  9. Carry the tools you need with you. Don't use a hatchet when an ax is called for.
  10. If you're going to carry a flashlight, make it a humongous one, but don't turn it on till absolutely necessary. Too much light can damage your night vision.

So, vaya con Dios, my old teacher. I do believe you managed to achieve the goal of every follower of Christ throughout history. You made the world a better place for your having passed through it.

© 2016 by Tom King




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