BY BRIAN RZEPPA
For more than 60 years, Fred Miller played a vital role in helping grow the Roar on the River power boat races into the Downriver mid-summer fixture that it has become today. His sudden death from an apparent aneurism on March 6, 2017, at age 78, has left what can only be described as a huge void in the heart and soul of the long-running event.
“He’s the Godfather of the Trenton races,” said Linda Francetich, a fellow member of the event’s Executive Committee. “He was our patriarch and he was one of those people who make such a great imprint on your life. His presence will be so greatly missed by many people.”
While his physical presence will be missed, Miller leaves behind a great legacy that stretches all around the country. From boating tournaments in Florida to California to Maine, Miller was able to make a positive impact in the lives of people across the United States.
After returning from the Army in the early 1960s, Miller took the reins of the Roar on the River and never looked back, embarking on a journey that brought countless members of the community together.
Paul Jocks, a friend of Miller’s for more than 30 years and the director of administration for the event, credited Miller with the example that he set for everyone involved with the races, as well as the problem-solving ability that he has developed.
“Fred always had a very positive outlook on dealing with problems and issues that came up,” Jocks said. “He treated them as challenges and didn’t let them get the better of him. He was always working to find a solution and that ability just rubbed off on everyone. Beyond that, he would always solve one problem and move to the next.”
As the years went on, Miller played a vital role in helping the event grow through his work attracting sponsors. Ronnie Ruelle, who works for lead event sponsor PNC, and is involved with the “Taste of the Races,” the annual event kickoff party, noted Miller’s persistence.
“Fred never gave up,” Ruelle said. “He was persistent, he was a go-getter and when you talked to him you wanted to be part of it. Fifteen or 20 years ago, before we became a title sponsor, he would call about the Roar and I would sign up as a sponsor without even knowing what it was just because of his enthusiasm for it.”
A recipient of the Charles D. Strang Ultimate Service Award from the American Power Boat Association, Miller had a tremendous career as a boat racer himself aside from the organization of the Roar on the River. His career in racing provided his family the opportunity to travel around the country, something that sprung a passion for his daughter, Stacy Iwanicki.
“I grew up a boat racer’s daughter and while I wasn’t interested in the racers themselves, it helped inspire passions of my own,” she said. “By hanging out around the shorelines I took up an interest in nature and following dad’s lead I coordinate things like habitat restoration for a living. Our passions were very different, but our personalities were very much the same and he provided me with the opportunity to be able to explore those passions.”
While he didn’t have the same interests as his daughter, Fred was able to pass on his love for boat racing to his son Gordon, who picked up the family craft right when he was allowed to.
“My entire career is because of my dad. I started racing when I was 10 years and continued on for almost 50 years after that just because of the exposure that I had to it growing up. It was all because of my father and it was a great connection to share,” Gordon said.
Beyond his time spent on the water, Miller was known as someone who could lift up anyone that was feeling down and had positivity that radiated amongst those around him.
“He was always a very high-energy guy,” Jocks said. “He lived and breathed boat racing, but in general he just had a very good spirit and got along with everyone because of his positive attitude and positive approach towards life.”
Francetich, who oversees the marketing, entertainment and public relations aspects of the Roar, added that he was someone who genuinely cared about the well being of others.
“He was really like a father figure to me. He was to the point and he was tough when it was time to be tough, but he never had a bad word to say about anyone and was incredibly compassionate. He’s one of the rare people that makes a big impact on your life on a number of levels.”
Miller’s legacy will be felt in a number of different ways, but one of the more lasting ways in that he will be remembered was the way that he drew people into the sport of boat racing.
“One of the memories that stands out the most to me is one day after I took a more active role in helping with the boat races, I had a very good experience that day and as we were both leaving the park I told him that he had me hooked and ever since that point we worked very closely,” Jocks said.
His son, Gordon, added, “He was intensely loyal to both of the families in his life; his traditional family and his boat racing family. He devoted his entire life to both of them and would do anything for them.”
Though it may not have always been in boat racing, Miller was able to help people push their limits and follow their dreams.
“In his later years it really became clear how great a father and a husband he was,” Iwanicki said. “For the last ten years, he’d taken care of my mother and just went above and beyond in all aspects.”
Along with his daughter, Miller is survived by his wife, Mary, his son, Gordon, and his sister Peggy, and was preceded in death by his mother, Ivy, his father, Maurice, and his sister Marilyn.
A memorial will be held in his honor Saturday, July 15, during the Roar on the River. Donations in Fred Miller’s honor can be made to the Roar on the River, as well as to JourneyCare Hospice in Illinois.