In the early seventies, just before gill net fishing was outlawed in Long Island Sound, Jim Miller caught a sport fisherman stealing his fish and net in broad daylight.
When the thief made it clear he wouldn’t give up the net, Mr. Miller, a commercial fisherman, drew a .38-caliber pistol, dragged the thief’s boat in and got the police on his side to settle the matter.
That couldn’t take place today, said the founder of Calverton-based Miller Environmental Group.
“It was just the times,” Mr. Miller, 82, said at his son Mark’s Southold home, just three doors from his own.
This story and many others are chronicled in “Nothing Bad Ever Happens: Jim Miller’s Life of Hard Knocks, Hard Work, Tough Love and Joy,” a book commissioned by his family as an 80th birthday gift and written by Benedict Cosgrove. The stories, told largely in Mr. Miller’s own voice, tell in part how his no-hesitation attitude toward opportunity over the years led to success.
“It seemed as if we’ve always been amazed by his life,” the younger Miller said. “The experiences that he had are truly important and unique and happened at a particularly interesting time in American history.”
Those experiences include the 1951 Pelican disaster, when a charter fishing boat was overtaken by rough waters off Montauk Point, killing 45 passengers and crew members. A 16-year-old Jim Miller was out in Montauk that summer, early in his fishing career, which he later dropped out of 11th grade to pursue. When he heard of the wreck, he jumped on a small fishing vessel to help tow the capsized charter in and pulled bodies out of the water.
It was a situation where, “if you can, you should,” Mr. Miller said.
His son said he realized the book was more than a gift, but a chance to capture his father’s stories for generations to come. Just the night before, he read some of them to his 8-year-old daughter, about when Mr. Miller, at age 6, had an open leg wound addressed with steel clips with little to subside the pain, and another time when he was run over by a car.
“I didn’t even tell you this,” Mark Miller said as he turned to his father. “I started reading some of the stories and her jaw dropped.”
Again, Mr. Miller said, it was just the times.
“No, you can’t do that today, but that was life,” he said.
While times have changed, one thing that has remained constant is Mr. Miller’s mind-set and response to opportunities before him. He was guided by the thought “nothing bad ever happens. There are only missed opportunities.”
As gill net fishing was on its way out, fishing competition became more fierce and boats seemed to sink mysteriously in the middle of the night. A new path began to appear one January morning in 1971 in Port Jefferson Harbor, when Mr. Miller was called to organize a group of clam diggers to clean up an oil spill.
The men used what resources they had available — hay — to absorb the spill and were paid for their work after about a week of pitchforking oil-soaked hay out of the water into garbage bags. What was at first a “short-term opportunity” grew into more cleanup work and the beginnings of Miller Environmental Group, which has since responded to such major events such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and the aftermath of Sept. 11.
“Opportunity disguises itself and opportunity generally looks like hard work and most people try and avoid hard work and that’s something we’ve never been afraid of,” Mr. Miller said, adding that it’s not part of his mentality to be afraid of responding to challenge, whether it’s in business or life. There’s risk and reward in both, he said.
For instance, at age 63, he and Mark climbed Mount Kilimanjaro because someone asked, “Why not?” and he couldn’t find a reason not to.
That life philosophy was ingrained in Mark Miller, who has lead MEG since 1999, and his five siblings. Growing up, they didn’t know anything else but that, he said.
“We live our life by that philosophy — ‘nothing bad ever happens,’ ” he said. “You have to look for the opportunity in certain things because often it’s a little bit tough, but still, when your whole life is geared toward that mentality, it makes it easier, and it’s helped me deal with adversity in such a wonderful way and has opened me up to saying ‘yes.’<\!q>”
The older Miller said he’s lived a rewarding life, but that doesn’t mean he’ll stop saying “yes.” His phone rings every day with a pitch for a new business concept, joint venture or real estate investment, his son said.
“I think life is a dynamic thing, it changes every day,” Mr. Miller said. “I see opportunity every day. I don’t think my life is a situation that’s been lived and can never be duplicated.”
“He’s 82 and he’s still thinking about the next opportunity and so it’s not as if he’s sitting back, looking back on the good ol’ days and that was when his life was interesting and active,” his son said. “Tomorrow’s just as exciting to him as what he did 50 years ago.”
“Nothing Bad Ever Happens” is available at amazon.com for $30.