Local man retires, but keeps cooking

By Mary Marek
Posted 1/21/99

Over the years, Wilson Miller has pushed a lot of snow and mowed a lot of grass and he has lots of stories to tell.

The Kalona resident tells of when he began his job with the City of Coralville …

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Local man retires, but keeps cooking


Over the years, Wilson Miller has pushed a lot of snow and mowed a lot of grass and he has lots of stories to tell.

The Kalona resident tells of when he began his job with the City of Coralville in the late ‘60s, during the Viet Nam War protests. As an auxiliary police officer, he helped guard the court house during the riots.

In 1977 Miller took a full-time job with the Coralville Parks and Recreation Department, becoming one of only two men in the department.

“We had one tractor and if we needed a pick-up, we used our personal vehicles,” remembers Miller.

He switched to building maintenance a few years ago and spent his last years on the job keeping equipment in the recreation center in good working condition. One of his more memorable duties for the City of Coralville, however, was keeping the pumps running on 1st Avenue in Coralville during the flood of ‘93.

“We had to keep the pumps going constantly. We were trying to keep local businesses from flooding,” he recalled.

After 21 years with Coralville, Wilson Miller retired last December. His last day of work was also the day of the department’s annual Christmas dinner, which Miller prepared every year. This year was no different, except that, although he was unaware of it, Miller was cooking his own retirement dinner.

“People started showing up about 11 o’clock and I couldn’t figure out why. We weren’t supposed to eat until noon,” Miller said.

He soon found out why, when coworkers revealed a large sign with the number “21” on it and Gwen Sheeley, assistant director of the parks and recreation department, presented him with a pair of collector’s dolls dressed in Salvation Army uniforms.

It was while he was manning the pumps in 1993 that Miller had his first experience with the Salvation Army.

“Me and another guy were keeping the pumps going and we were dying of thirst. A Salvation Army worker stopped and asked if we wanted something to eat. We said no, but we sure could use something to drink. She took care of us.”

His interest aroused, Miller ended up making three runs with the Salvation Army’s canteen that summer. From that start, his involvement with the charitable organization has blossomed to the point where he is in charge of Saturday meal preparation in the Iowa City facility.

He does the actual cooking only once or twice a month, unless one of the scheduled workers can’t make it. The rest of the time, he oversees the various volunteer groups, such as Helping Hands from Kalona, who handle the meal preparation.

“We have several churches who take turns fixing meals,” Miller said, “but we’re always looking for more volunteers.”

The number of people who partake of the free meals can vary from 30-60. “I usually plan a meal to feed 50. If I see there’s more people than that, I give out a little smaller serving to make sure everyone gets to eat,” Miller explained. “Last weekend we were running out of food, so I went to the store room and got a few cans of Spaghetti-Os.”

In addition to rounding up volunteers to cook, Miller helps to ensure there is always food in the store room. Several area grocery stores donate day-old baked goods and produce, but Miller is always on the look-out for donations.

This year is going to be an important year for the Iowa City group. They will move into the old Woodburn Sound building and will soon be launching a fund-raising campaign to purchase it. In addition to $150,000 they hope to receive in endowments, they need $850,000 to purchase and remodel the building.

The new location will give them much needed space, in addition to allowing access to the dining area without having to walk through the sanctuary.

“Everyone has to walk right through the sanctuary to get to the food and it’s impossible to keep the carpet clean,” Miller said.

The new location will also have more space to store donated items, such as clothing, bedding and canned and boxed food, that the group keeps on hand.

Despite the image of a uniformed tuba-player that mention of the Salvation Army brings to mind, Miller said that the Salvation Army doesn’t like to “blow its own horn”, prefering instead to do good deeds quietly.

Following last June’s wind storm, the Salvation Army rounded up three mobile canteens and served meals in various areas of Iowa City, taking the food into the neighborhoods that most needed it.

So, while Wilson Miller may have retired from his job with the City of Coralville, it is certain that he’ll still be donating his time and cooking skills to the Salvation Army. Stop in and see him, and you might want to take a bag of groceries along with you.