A wonderful thing about life is that people touch us along the way and bring us the gifts that last long after they leave us. I was in a classroom on the second floor of the 61st Precinct, Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn, the day after I graduated from the Police Academy, in December 1981. Speakers addressed us. There are only two I remember; a full inspector, in his grand uniform. He spoke of how the sometimes monotony while on patrol can become chaos without warning. Then a seasoned veteran in his late fifties, Detective Louie Miller, spoke to us. His demeanor was a bit intimidating, his voice was rough, rugged. So much for first impressions.
He told us a joke. A paratrooper was going up for his first jump, very anxious. The sergeant gave detailed instructions; how high they would go, when they would jump, when to pull the cord, and if by any chance the parachute does not open, to pull the backup chord, and then what time the truck would pick them up and take them back to the base. The paratrooper jumps, falls through the sky, pulls the cord and nothing happens. Pulls the back up, and nothing happens. As he’s falling to his death he says, “Just one of those days. I bet the truck that’s going to pick us up doesn’t show up either.” Why that joke? At a time when each of us was probably more anxious than we’ve been in our lives, he acknowledged that he validated it, and he made us laugh. That was the only speaker we had that day who let us know we would be alright.
Louie was one of our “greatest generation,” a Marine who served in the South Pacific during World War II. With his experience and time on the job, Louie – who was affectionately called, “The Commander” – could have had any position in the NYPD, but he chose to be a training officer. He considered it a special privilege. Louie would regularly remind his fellow training officers of the enormous potential they had. He would say to them, “The future leaders of our department may be in this group. Someone in this group may be chief someday.”
He affectionately referred to the young officers he was training as “his kids.” He loved running into buildings with officers who were less than half his age. The Commander knew the glory of being the first to show up at the home of someone who needed help, experiencing a crisis that only a cop could help them with. When asked when he was going to retire, Louie would say, “I love my job; I love my kids. The only way I’m going to leave this job is with an ‘Inspector’s Funeral’.” (An honor given to a police officer who dies in the line of duty.)
The 70th Precinct’s Sector “George” was Louie’s steady sector. When he and his rookies started their tour he would message the dispatcher, “Car 2059 to Central” The dispatcher would respond, “Good afternoon Commander!” He’d continue, “Be advised, this unit will be designated sector ‘George’.” The dispatcher would say, “10–4 Commander.” Then, cops from all over the division would get on the radio to greet Louie; “How are you, Commander?” “Hey, Commander!” “Good afternoon Louie!” There was a rule against unnecessary transmissions over the department radio, but no one would ever question the honorable greetings given to Louie each day. Knowing he was working and the sound of his voice comforted everyone, including the dispatcher.
His compassion and kindness showed up always. He carried containers of dog food in the back of his patrol car for the occasional hungry stray dog. He would give the homeless change, coffee or tea, something to eat, always a few kind words, and the most valuable gift one can give – his attention. His wife Veronica’s mother had bought a Persian Lamb coat as World War II began that she passed on to her. Vera wore it a few times, and put it away in the back of a closet, where it stayed for years. One day she noticed the coat missing. She asked Louie if he had seen it. He told her, in a matter-of-fact tone, “I got rid of that old coat. I found someone who really needed it.” Louie had given it to a homeless woman at the train station on Church Avenue. He got into a bit of trouble, but not for long. Vera was as loving as he was.
35 years ago this past March 11, in 1987, I was assigned as the desk officer of the 61st Precinct. Desiree, a police officer who was being trained in Louie’s unit, came down the stairs and walked quickly toward the desk, looking at me from the moment she came out of the stairway. Desiree was very pleasant and was always smiling, but as she walked quickly toward me, her face was very serious. Before she even got to me, from about twenty feet away, she said, “Louie was shot.” I stared at Desiree; she stared back at me, both with a look of helpless disbelief. For a moment, everything seemed to stop – my thoughts, my body, and time. Then, a few moments later, I heard that Louie might not make it. And within the hour, The Commander had died. That bad news traveled quickly. It spread throughout the entire NYPD, to every station house in every borough, every patrol car, to every cop on a foot post. And the momentary paralysis Desiree and I shared was felt by every one of New York’s Finest. A cop was shot in the 70, and he didn’t make it.
Years later I spoke of Louie during every rookie orientation, but I could only speak about him a few minutes at a time because I would become emotional. At the end of the session, on my way home, I would call his wife Veronica in Charlottesville to tell her that a couple of hundred officers had been given some of the wisdom of “The Commander.” Often at the beginning of our chat, she would ask if people still remember him. I would assure her that they still do. At the end of every phone call, she would say to me, “Aww, you’ve made my day.” I would open the next day with the rookies telling them that with only one day out of the Police Academy they have already made a difference and touched the heart of the widow of one of our heroes.
When I told Vera that plenty of people still remembered Louie, it was true, and it will be true for many years to come. But today, eight years after Vera passed away, I would say this: There will certainly come a time when people do not know who Louie Miller was, other than his name on the memorial, but his influence in our world, the NYPD, and the impact he had on so many, and the fact that generations treat their brothers and sisters in humanity better, because of him, is a legacy that thrives, beyond the memory of his name.
And that I believe, is the greatest reward life can offer us, and we can offer life.