Jim Miller remembered as pioneer of industry with far-reaching legacy

On Sept. 1, 1951, Jim Miller was a 16-year-old kid from Merrick working as a mate on a charter fishing boat out of Lake Montauk. He wasn’t a good high school student back home and was not looking forward to returning to the classroom as the summer came to an end.

That morning a very different future beckoned. This one day in his young life would be so consequential that nothing would be the same ever again.

At 2 p.m., a mile east of the Montauk Lighthouse, the Pelican, a fishing party boat overloaded with day trippers from New York City, capsized in heavy seas, killing 45 of its 64 passengers and crew. Nearby fishing boats, including the legendary Frank Mundus’s Cricket 11 and the one Jim worked on, responded to help, towing the overturned Pelican into Lake Montauk.

There, this 16-year-old helped bring the dead that had been trapped in the hull to the surface and lay them out on the dock.

“This day changed everything in my father’s life — everything,” his son Mark Miller said. “He didn’t return to high school and soon left to work on a shrimp boat in Mexico.”

On June 24, Mr. Miller, a resident of Southold, died at the age of 85, leaving behind Barbara, his wife of 64 years, six children and their families. During a lifetime of hard work, coupled with an extraordinary business acumen, Mr. Miller went from being a high school dropout, a shrimper in Mexico and a lobsterman out of Port Jefferson to being the founder of Miller Environmental Group in Calverton and a partner in another firm, National Response Corporation, which began in Calverton and today has its headquarters in Great River.

Looking back at Mr. Miller’s life is to see what a profound impact he had on so many lives, on the business community in general and the environmental cleanup business specifically. It is no exaggeration to say he was a pioneer and a founding member of that industry.

In a family-written obituary that ran in The Suffolk Times, his family said of him: “Jim had an impact on countless lives and left a legacy that stretches far beyond what any of us truly know. His ability to mentor and inspire anyone through invaluable life lessons has led to thousands of connections and memories. James was known for his fierce dedication to family, sharp wit, optimistic intellect, and his raw grit and determination. 

“Jim’s life philosophy was, ‘Nothing bad ever happens — we just need to find the opportunities in everything.’ ”

The story of how Mr. Miller went from owning and captaining a lobster boat, the Lady Barbara, to starting Miller Environmental Group in 1971 is illustrative of his very entrepreneurial mind. Changes in the regulations after oil spills sparked the idea for MEG, which quickly grew into one of the largest businesses on eastern Long Island and today has more than 150 employees.

Mark Miller took over the business in 1999. Both father and son had been partners in National Response Corporation, which they both left in 1998. Mark sold MEG last year to an investment group for an undisclosed amount. 

Growing up in Merrick as the son of an immigrant from Latvia, the young Jim Miller hustled to help keep a poor family afloat. He delivered Newsday and organized a number of routes to maximize his own income and tips; he parked cars for tips near a local movie theater and did whatever he could as a boy and into his early teens to bring in money for his parents and six siblings.

“My grandfather was not the entrepreneur figuring out how to turn a buck,” Mark said. “They were very poor. I visited the house when I was a kid and was astonished nine people could live in it. They even converted a chicken coop in the backyard to living space for the children. My father used to say, ‘It’s true money isn’t everything, but poverty is nothing.’ ”

Severely dyslexic, the young Jim was a poor student his teachers mistook for being slow. After the fateful summer in 1951 in Montauk, and refusing to return to Merrick to complete high school, he went to Mexico, sending nearly all he earned back home to his struggling family. When he returned to Long Island he went to work for a spackler, eventually taking over the business. 

“Long Island was booming in the ’50s,” Mark said. “Levittown was under construction and there was a lot of work in residential construction. He became a master spackler and soon took over the business because the owner was an immigrant who could not continue to own it.”

Later, Jim heard about a commercial fishing boat, the Diane Janet, that had foundered in the surf off Fire Island. He went to see it and, through a remarkable series of events, bought the wreck and salvage rights for next to nothing. He pulled out the boat’s big diesel engine, brought it to his garage and rebuilt it — and then sold it and other equipment he salvaged from the wreck and used the proceeds to buy his first lobster boat, the Lady Barbara.

“He knew nothing about the lobster business,” Mark said. “He learned very quickly.” Soon he realized lobstering on Long Island Sound was like a scene out of the lawless Old West, with lobstermen carrying guns to ward off people stealing their traps and cutting their lines.

Then — like the boat that had floundered in the surf — opportunity struck when a tanker in Port Jefferson Harbor began leaking oil. Jim Miller brought hay bales to the harbor and, after organizing a crew of clammers and other fishermen, cleaned up the spill — sending an invoice to the tanker’s insurance company for payment.

“He was now in the emergency response business,” Mark said. “This was the start of it, really. His timing could not have been better.”

Other big spills, such as one in 1976 in the St. Lawrence Seaway, helped the fledgling business grow quickly into Miller Environmental Group with nationwide connections. The Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico served as a master class on how to handle a crisis, with MEG quickly hiring 1,600 people to help with the cleanup. 

“We were the little locomotive that could,” Mark said.

Later, partnering with another firm, Jim and Mark Miller formed National Response Corporation, which today is another giant in the environmental cleanup business. And it all began with one man, his work ethic and his acute sense of what would work, coupled with the perseverance to push it through.

In 2017, Jim published a memoir, “Nothing Bad Ever Happens,” which he described as a story about “hard knocks, hard work, tough love and joy.” 

“He was a giving man, very generous with people,” his son remembered. “The impact on us is enormous. I am so grateful to him.”

At noon on the day of Mr. Miller’s burial last week in Southold, scores of Miller boats stopped what they were doing. His obituary was read aloud over marine VHF radio. “Then all vessels in the Miller fleet blasted their horns and sounded their whistles for one minute in a tribute to my father,” Mark said. 

“Other vessels unrelated to the Miller fleet spontaneously joined in as well. There were oil tankers, barges, tug boats that joined in and the cacophony of sound was heard offshore from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up the coast to New York Harbor and beyond.”