Valley Vignette: Dave Miller to his daughter … work hard, stay true


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Four fingers dance rhythmically along steel wires stretched tightly along the neck of a Takamine Custom G Series acoustic guitar. Like seasoned tightrope walkers, they effortlessly glide up and down the strings.

Each finger is stamped with a different blocky letter that spells out a simple yet inspirational reminder to the musician who is lost in a music-making trance: T-R-U-E.

Combined with the letters tattooed on the fingers of Dave Miller’s right hand, the motto is complete: Stay true.

It has been a long journey from the rural Turbotville house he grew up in to the Washingtonville-based studio Miller re¬cently built in a converted rail car garage — a trek that has led Miller across the country and back to central Pennsylva¬nia where he now works on his second album and assists Geisinger Medical Center provide the best care to chil¬dren and their families.

Along the way, he learned the importance of staying true to the music, to who he really is and to his duties as a father to a special young girl who has endured incred¬ibly long odds and inspired those around her.

A grizzly beginning

His hands waving frantically in the air, Miller is standing in the wilds of Alaska. A massive 1,300-pound grizzly bear is charging directly at him.

“They teach you to stay tall, raise your hands in the air and stand your ground when faced with a grizzly,” Miller said. “But I really thought it was going to be the end. It came within inches of me, stopped and eventually went off in another direction.”

It was 2002 and Miller was helping out at the extremely remote Katmai National Park, protecting people — including celebrities like John Elway and Norman Schwarzkopf — from grizzly

bears. During the half-year stint, Miller had literally thousands of encounters with grizzly bears — as many as 57 in one day.

“Grizzlies aren’t the monsters people make them out to be. They’re more like big dogs,” he said. “In fact one of the biggest mistakes people make is they curl up in a ball during a grizzly en¬counter and start screaming. To the bear, they become a large dog toy complete with a squeaker.”

Miller did some squeak¬ing of his own in the Alas¬kan wilderness.

“I had never really used my voice with my music until one day out in Alaska. I started singing Pearl Jam’s ‘Black.’ A couple guys came over and started motion¬ing for me to move,” he said. “I didn’t know it, but a 900-pound grizzly was laying just 20 feet behind me the whole time. From then on, the guys would joke about me serenading the bears.”

Miller went on to play in his first public venue in Anchorage at a small bar.

“After playing they of¬fered me two free beers and a sandwich as a tip,” he said. For the show, he used a guitar he had purchased for $12. “After another show, they gave me a six-pack and a sandwich and I remember thinking: ‘I’m really rolling it in now.’ I decided to make a real run at it.”

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Two life-changing calls

Miller’s phone is ringing. It is 2008 and the voice on the other end says she is Katey Sagal — also known as Peggy Bundy from “Married with Children” and more recently Gemma Teller Morrow from “Sons of Anarchy.”

“I had gotten an email from someone saying it was Katey Sagal and I brushed it off as spam. Then I get the call and figure someone is pranking me,” Miller said. “But she called back and started talking about my song ‘Hollywood Jack.’ She said there was some real talent there and wanted to use it on the show (‘Sons of Anarchy’). That turned out really cool.”

The break led Miller into much more work but he soon got another life-chang¬ing phone call.

“I was on tour and got a call that I needed to get to the hospital immediately,” he said. “I didn’t know Stephanie was pregnant. She was going into labor prematurely. In a span of 36 hours I went from on tour, to ‘You’re going to be a dad’ to ‘You’re a dad.’”

Ella Miller was born 25 weeks early and weighed just 1 pound, 14 ounces. Miller said she fit into the palm of his hand. She was struggling to survive and then two weeks into her young life, Ella was di¬agnosed with necrotizing enterocolitis, a condition where tissue in the intes¬tines begin to die.

“Ella lost 48 percent of her intestines,” Miller said. “It was very critical.”

Sixteen surgeries, 49 blood transfusions and five months later, Ella finally was released from the hos¬pital.

“The world doesn’t stop when your kid is sick. I had to go back to work and pay the bills. I had to keep the day job and then do gigs at night to help stay afloat,” Miller said. “I’d finally get to visit Ella between 3 and 6 in the morning. The shows I did then were horrible. I don’t even know why people came. Here I was getting paid to play gigs and try to make people feel good and the whole time my kid is dy¬ing. I would go to the hospi¬tal each night afterward and ask her for forgiveness.”

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New opportunities

It is 2013 and Miller is meeting with prospective Geisinger nurses. The hospi¬tal has asked Miller to be on an advisory board sharing his story to help future work¬ers understand the plight of the parent of a sick child.

“Back when Ella was in the hospital, from the out¬side looking in, the nurses would get preconceived notions about what was go¬ing on. Here I was covered in tattoos, smelling like booze from the gigs I was at and only visiting her in the middle of the night,” Miller said. “They didn’t see the other side of the story. Over time, I got to be really good friends with the people who worked with Ella. It is great that I can now help others in the business learn not to judge a book by its cover.”

Miller set his roots in our local area for good with the opening of Studio Raven near the PPL powerplant. The fully equipped record¬ing studio allows him to stay on the cutting edge of the business and share his tal¬ents with other prospective musicians. He offers lessons to 25 students ranging in age from 4 to 68.

Of course, there is much more to be learned in each lesson than simply how to play an instrument.

“This business is all about drive — about hard work,” Miller said. “All these musi¬cal reality shows give people a chance to be a star over¬night, but how long do they really last? Those who put in the time, sweat and dedica¬tion are the ones who make it big and stay there.”

As Miller’s jam session ends, and the eight-letter message on his fingers comes into better focus, there is something else visibly tat¬tooed on each hand — two tiny Ella footprints. The message is complete.

“Through it all, I am most proud today of being the dad I am. That I can chase my dream without excuses,” Miller said. “I want to show Ella that by working hard and staying true to herself and her dreams, she can do anything she wants.”

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~ by zaktansky on June 26, 2013.

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