By Henry M. Holden
It all started with a phone call in 1978. Ron and Shirley Miller had answered an appeal from the Experimental Aircraft Association to take in guests for the week of EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis. Shortly after Shirley Miller had her name and phone number posted, she got a phone call from Keith Phillips. Phillips, several of his friends, and Raymond Maule and his family had discovered their usual sleeping accommodations in Oshkosh, the dormitory at the University of Wisconsin, was full.
“We have eight people,” Phillips said. “Can you accommodate us?”
Miller wasn’t expecting so many people, but replied “sure,” and then scrambled to put together bedding and bunks. Ron and Shirley Miller, like many people in Oshkosh, were farmers, with a herd of dairy cows, and corn, alfalfa and soybean fields, and a house large enough to accommodate the intrepid flyers for a week. The phone listing was the first and last time the Millers ever advertised for guests. For the last 27 years, Phillips and the Maules have been recommending their friends to the Miller’s farm, and the house has never been empty the week of EAA AirVenture.
Occasionally the Millers experience an overload of guests. For example, in 1987 they had 27 people, but the record was set in 1992, when 31 guests showed up. The average for the last few years has been about 20. When an overload occurs now, the Millers send a few guests to either the home of her son Doug, or daughter Lorrie, who live just down the road. The Millers, who have been married 53 years, have six children, 16 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Ron Miller “retired” from farming a few years ago, and now “freelances” planting cros for other farmers. Shirley Miller is a former court bailiff for the county.
Almost everyone who shows up at the Millers either is a pilot or connected to the aviation industry, but that’s not a requirement for spending a week with one of the nicest groups of people one can find. Darla Richter is an air traffic controller and Cessna dealer, and Harry Truppner, also a pilot, works at a Flight Service Station. Susan Maule flies for a major airline, and Brent Maule is a pilot for Maule Air Inc.
Oddly enough, when the day is over, and everyone is either sitting in the backyard around the fire pit, or at the breakfast nook, the talk is not always about airplanes. Keith Phillips, a two-tour Vietnam fighter pilot who has missed only one year in the 27 said, “One reason I enjoy coming here is the total lifestyle change we experience. It’s not always about aviation, but there’s always some sort of entertainment.” He paused and then said, “Ronnie Miller has a whole bag of jokes, and his delivery is perfect. If he’s not telling a joke, he’s showing us a magic trick.”
The evening discussions may involve aviation sometimes, since one of the guests, Olav van Bockel, also a pilot, travels every year from the Netherlands. He’s been doing this since 1989, and always brings the European perspective on everything from aviation to politics to the farm. One thing is sure; the conversations are never heated, dull or jaded.
Shirley and Ron Miller have fond memories of their guests also.
“In the 27 years, I’ve watched the Maule children, Susan and Brent, and Keith’s children, Skeeter (Keith Jr.) Mike and Tim, literally grow up,” she said.
Raymond Maule, the son of the late B.D. Maule, inventor of the successful line of Maule airplanes, and his wife Rautgunde, have been flying a Maule airplane to the show every year. On several occasions, they’ve even landed at the farm, usually in one of the unplanted fields.
One year, the Maules, Phillips and several of his friends landed at the farm. The following morning, the weather was clear at Wittman Field when a private pilot took off. A few miles out, he ran into some early morning fog, and since he wasn’t an IFR-rated pilot, searched for an opening, and an airfield. He saw several airplanes below him on the ground, and landed. Stepping out of the airplane he asked, “What airport is this?” To his surprise, he had landed at “Miller Field.”
Ron and Shirley Miller invited him in for breakfast, and Keith Phillips pulled out a sectional and showed the errant pilot where he wanted to go. After breakfast, the fog had burned away and the pilot took off, never to be heard from again. The following year, Ron Miller mowed a big “EAA” in the alfalfa field. That didn’t attract any lost pilots, but it was a nice tribute to those traveling to “Aviation Mecca.”
Each year, “regulars” look upon this one week as a mini reunion—a time to catch up on the past year, and often meet and make new friends, and to enjoy and cherish Ron and Shirley Millers’ gracious and warm hospitality. The great part is that all around Oshkosh, for one week of the year, others open their homes as well.