Bridge runner’s death reminds us to live life fully

The late Leroy Miller of Hanahan had missed only one Cooper River Bridge and Run from the time he started at age 80 until March 28 when, at age 93, he broke his own record for being the oldest finisher.

Last spring, I had the privilege of meeting Leroy Thomas Miller, a man set on breaking his own record of being the oldest person to finish the Cooper River Bridge Run and Walk.

A week before the race, I caught up with the 93-year-old on a warm, early spring afternoon at his modest home in Hanahan. We chatted and I took photographs as he walked his training route.

On March 28, Miller accomplished his goal of finishing the 6.2-mile walk, which is actually 7.2 miles for walkers who must line up at the back of the pack.

His feat was despite the fact that Charleston city police had asked him to get on a bus in order to reopen the bridge.

That afternoon, I touched base with him to see how the walk went and figured I’d probably see him again next year.

But a couple of weeks ago, I received a call from one of Miller’s friends with some bad news.

He had died on June 14 after struggling with a cascade of health issues that originated with blood in his urine, later diagnosed as a urinary tract infection.

Despite his age, many who knew him were still shocked and saddened. The man was so vital, physically, mentally and spiritually.

For me, the questions swirled. Did he do too much? Was he under too much pressure to finish? Did I personally contribute to that in some way?

His youngest son, 71-year-old Larry Miller, assured me that none of those was the case.

“When he got home from the Bridge Run, he was so high and happy,” says Larry. “I don’t think the Bridge Run had anything to do with it.”

He adds that his father’s problems originated before the Bridge Run when he noticed blood in his urine. His urologist advised him to consider doing only part of the walk.

Leroy Miller would have none of that. He set out to finish or not do it at all.

Larry says his father’s health problems escalated following anesthesia to do an exploratory procedure on his bladder. Drugs also played a role, causing incontinence and dehydration.

“So many things were happening to him at the same time that I don’t think he could take it,” says Larry.

In compiling information for his obituary, Larry realized, more than ever, how his father had been athletic all his life, noting that he tore a rotator cuff while trying to catch a fly ball in a “Young at Heart” softball game when he was 80, the same year he suffered a heart attack.

At Charleston High School in the 1940s, Leroy was the catcher on the baseball team and an end on the football team. Later, he played minor league baseball in Charleston, and played baseball and football for the Army while stationed in Japan. He continued to play in softball leagues until he was 80. He also bowled three times a week.

He started his running career at 80 after having open-heart surgery and ran or walked all but one Bridge Run since then.

That zest for life also translated into his family and church lives. He was very generous and charitable.

He was married three times. His first wife of 41 years, Dorothy Thackeray Miller, died in 1982. His second wife of 23 years, Peggie Peek Miller, died in 2009 after battling Alzheimer’s disease.

Larry recalls how his father became depressed following his bypass surgery, not only because that’s typical in older patients but because he wasn’t able to care for Peggie.

His third wife, Gwendolyn Hemphill Miller, is faring well, according to Larry, but may have to move into an assisted-living facility.

I contrast his life with so many others in my life and recall the title of my favorite book on aging, Dr. Walter Bortz’s 1992 book “We Live Too Short and Die Too Long: How to Achieve Your Natural 100-Year-Plus Life Span.”

Sometimes I think we concentrate too much on living long rather than living well. Instead of finding ways to remain active or excuses not to eat a healthy diet, we rely on pharmaceutical drugs to help us live long but often sickness-filled lives.

Leroy Miller serves as a reminder to live and love with every day you have. In just an hour or so on a spring afternoon, I saw it in the twinkle of his eyes.

And that’s a life of no regrets.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.