[Editor's note: This story will appear in our November 21 print edition.]
David Miller may have only dressed as Santa Claus once a year, but his gift for giving touched countless lives every day.
The highly-respected entrepreneur and community champion died suddenly Nov. 1.
He was 77.
“There are so many great people in the world, but there will never be another David Miller,” Judy Wallace said.
There were plenty of smiles – along with a few tears – as she and Melinda Babin reflected on working for Miller and his wife, Aida Arnold, when they were franchise owner-operators of McDonald’s restaurants in Antigonish and Port Hawkesbury for almost 25 years.
“He was like a second Dad,” Babin said.
For them – and hundreds of others who worked ‘with’ and not ‘for’ Miller – it was the friendships and family atmosphere that are most memorable, including when the business patriarch donned the familiar red-and-white costume for the annual McDonald’s Christmas party.
“He looked forward to it each year. David loved children,” Babin said.
Wallace added, with a laugh, he always asked about the ‘McDonald’s babies,’ the name some employees gave to the children they had during their time with the restaurant.
“He always wanted to know how you and your family were doing. David treated everyone like family and not an employee,” she said.
Noting Miller was a “big part of my life,” Wallace talked about a Facebook tribute she penned after his passing.
“I just wanted people to know the kind of man he was; a lot of people knew David, but [they] didn’t know David,” she said.
“He was exceptional. He was so kind and generous and wanted to help you in any way that he could. He was always there.”
Babin noted he was “never afraid to try anything, and he always encouraged everyone.”
As an example of his unending support, she said Miller helped one young employee overcome his fear of public speaking.
“He never forgot that and he always thanked David for giving him the courage to be able to do something like that,” she added.
They smiled while recalling his love for manning the deep fryer and cooking fries, and making – or at least attempting to make, as Wallace quipped – ice cream cones for youngsters.
“He loved chatting with people and making them laugh,” she said, as they reflected on how Miller’s affection for customers and employees came shining through.
On numerous occasions, they noted, he would take his place outside the drive-thru window, where people not only received their food, but also some conversation.
“David was always kind, happy and caring,” Babin said.
She added he was “never cranky or in a bad mood,” even when his health wavered.
Although it has been a few years since they sold the business, they said Miller and Arnold continued to be frequent visitors to that aforementioned pick-up window, along with mainstays for the annual McHappy Day fundraiser.
“Everywhere you go in the restaurant, you think of him,” Babin said.
Before the couple arrived in Antigonish in 1988, Miller – a native of North Sydney, Cape Breton – spent time as vice president of the Cape Breton Development Corporation (DEVCO), along with the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C.
“David – being the curious, positive, community-minded person that he was – sought me out,” Senator Mary Coyle, the former director of the Coady International Institute, said.
“He was such a community-minded guy. I think his interest, in connecting with me at that time, was really as an interested community member in Antigonish.”
Coyle added she received “tremendous support” from Miller during her Coady tenure.
“He always came out to events, showed an interest in what was happening at the university [St. F.X.], and then – of course – as two citizens living together in the wonderful community of Antigonish, we connected a lot on things that mattered to us.”
Coyle commended Miller and Arnold for how they contributed “in very quiet ways.”
“He is one of those guys that, I think, made you want to give and do your best for your community, because he did it so naturally,” she said.
“David was a gentle, selfless – obviously, very smart – hard-working guy, who just made the community of Antigonish a better place for all of us to live in.”
One of the ways in which Miller and Arnold helped make Antigonish a ‘better place’ was through beautification, which began with encouraging businesses to brighten their properties with flowers and greenery.
“They actually started it before the town bought into it, really,” former Town of Antigonish Councillor Liz Chisholm said.
“Of course, it grew into something much more than we ever thought it would.”
That effort, eventually, garnered the town a national beautification award from Communities in Bloom, a Canadian non-profit organization committed to fostering civic pride, environmental responsibility through community involvement.
“David was so kind and considerate – just a wonderful, wonderful individual,” Chisholm said, noting – with a laugh – Miller “wasn’t afraid of anything.”
“He was just one of those people who would tackle anything. Nothing was too difficult and he would always say, ‘we can do it.’”
Chisholm echoed advice Miller often provided, when it came to the importance of taking small steps with any initiative.
“Do what we can, with what we have, and continue to grow,” she said.
Miller took a similar approach to his dream of establishing a celebration of arts and culture – and artists – that became the Antigonish Art Fair.
“I thought we would have a meeting and then we would go our separate ways, but he totally drew me in,” Beth Latwaitis, who has been side-by-side with Miller for the five seasons of the weekly summer festival, remembered of their first encounter.
“I could sense his absolute – I don’t know how to say this – honesty with his passion, if you know what I mean by that. He just drew me in with his vision for creating a place for artists to come and be able to show and sell their work, a place for the community to gather and enjoy it.
“He just had this vision, with art as the base, of buoying the community. It was just another one of David’s ideas of community, with art – this time – as the magnetic force,” she added.
The continuing success of the regional art fair helped spawn, just a few months ago, the Antigonish Art House.
“He will be missed greatly and I hope his visions and his dreams for this community keep on building; not just in the arts, but in all areas that David was interested in,” Latwaitis said.
Friend and fellow arts and culture supporter, Minoli Amit, said Miller “always saw things that needed to be done, and he would do it.”
“He was one of those people who looked for solutions to problems, rather than pointing out problems,” she added.
Amit noted he was also “so good at pulling people together to do things.”
Describing him as “curious,” Amit said he dabbled in everything from water power and constructing turbines to grafting apple trees and experimenting with growing different types of potatoes.
“There was quite a bit of a farmer in his make-up,” she said, noting her friend’s many days spent on his property in Big Intervale.
Amit also remembered his love for politics and global affairs.
“I don’t know how many TVs he had in the house, but each one was always on a news channel,” she said, with a laugh.
“He craved news. He would watch about any developments happening in the world.”
Town of Antigonish Mayor Laurie Boucher called Miller “a true champion for the community.”
“Through his support of the arts and contributions to the local business landscape, David’s legacy has left an incredible mark on our community,” she said.
“His humble leadership was shown through his commitment to the town he made his home, as well as in his willingness to help a neighbour and never expect anything in return.”
Warden Owen McCarron of the Municipality of the County of Antigonish agreed.
“David had a gentle approach – one that was never imposing. You always felt like he was making everyone part of it, which is a true gift,” he said.
McCarron added Miller had the “interest of the greater community, at heart.”
“It was never about him – it was always about making Antigonish an even better and more attractive place to live in and bring people to,” he said.