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O’Brien’s provided many memories

Parents Howard and Eileen Miller operated it from 1959-69, when her illness forced the sale

The story of Eileen Miller’s death that appeared in February of 1970 mentioned her age of course, 54.

It didn’t mention what the reporter likely didn’t know: that Eileen and her husband, Howard, had sold O’Brien’s to Jim Acton the previous year because they knew she likely would succumb to cancer and that running a restaurant without her was more than Howard could bear or wanted to do.

The two had met at a dance hall at Indian Lake in the 1930s, back when the amusement park and dance halls drew Big Bands and a regional crowd.

Eileen was a looker, voted the most beautiful waitress in Lima and given a diamond ring for the honor. Her sparkle wasn’t lost on Howard Miller, a boy from Bellefontaine.

As the story is passed down, things unfolded like the kind of movie being shown in the theaters back then.

“My dad spotted my mom and told his friend, “That’s the woman I’m going to marry,’” said Larry Miller. “And he did.”

That came in 1939, after a courtship of four or five years.

When World War II came, Howard Miller had other plans, too.

“Dad loved photography and enlisted in the Army hoping to become a war photographer,” said their son, retired at 64 after a career teaching history. “Instead, they sent him to cook’s school and changed his life.”

Trained by the Army, Howard Miller started his post war life selling for General Foods. He had enough contacts that when the Millers started a family, he found a job with less travel as manager of the White Gables Sandwich Shop.

A small but busy place on West Main Street, it served sandwiches and drinks to go, staying open until 2 a.m. to serve the guys leaving Crowell-Collier Publishing.

Looking for something bigger, they took out a loan and bought what had been a service station just south of the Huntington Bank at North Street and Fountain Avenue, opening the larger White Gables Drive in.

That was in 1949, the year son Larry was born.

‘It was one of the busiest restaurants in town,” he recalled.

“There were two great U-shaped counters (with stools) and two dining rooms,” he said. “It was 24 hours, seven days a week.”

Business came from downtown offices — lawyers, businessmen and newspaper people. Into the mix came folks pulling off U.S. 40 when it was the main highway, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and those coming from the bus station across Fountain Avenue.

Late night travelers would join those who were hungry after the bars closed and drank the same coffee police officers always got free.

“I pretty much grew up there,” said Larry Miller. “I was always Howard and Eileen’s son.”

That came with a certain amount of status and even more work.

His older sisters Linda and Cheryl, were also Howard and Eileen’s daughters and did their duty as car hops for the drive-in business.

The food wasn’t entirely fast.

“Because dad was Army trained in large school food preparation, he used very little prepackaged food,” his son said. “He would buy sides of beef and had his own meat cutter produce steaks, roast beef” and other cuts.

“When I was old enough, I ran the hamburger patty machine. I also ran the potato peeler and used a hand operated slicer to make French fries.”

The cube steak machine was off limits, however, because it had taken a couple of his mother’s fingers once, leading to extensive surgery.

Howard Miller was the front man, greeting customers, always affable, looking over the place, and telling his son to clean the top of the refrigerator again after it failed the white towel test.

“My mom was in the background, an extremely hard worker,” Miller said, making home made noodles, meat loafs and looking after the daily specials.

When Crowell-Collier closed at Christmas time 1956, the Millers were glad they’d relocated closer to downtown.

“But my dad could see the writing on the wall,” his son said.

Downtown was starting to thin, the chain restaurants were gaining strength, and so in 1959, they bought O’Brien’s from founder Walter O’Brien.

“He wanted to move up to something bigger again,” Larry Miller said. “As well as being a place with fancier meals, it had a liquor license, which meant more money, more profit.”

Although the Millers had by then paid their restaurant dues and gave up the 24-hour responsibilities, they still served breakfast, lunch and dinner before the college kids from Wittenberg took over the place at night.

Larry Miller worked there all the way through junior high, high school and college and remembers not only the important role Mary Fent played but the night he violated state liquor laws when his dad had the flu and his sister needed help at the bar.

“I did the beer,” he said. “I didn’t know how to do the mixed drinks.”

Still, beer was big — big enough that distributor Bob Fisher said O’Brien’s was the largest account in his six-county territory. Fisher’s friendship helped Miller find Jim Acton to buy the place once Eileen’s cancer was discovered.

“I think dad was relieved that O’Brien’s passed into good hands when he sold it to Jim Acton,” Larry Miller said.

“After mom died, he stayed retired for a little while but got a chance to pursue his old love of photography when the Upper Valley Mall Opened. JC Penney opened with a camera department, and dad would be its manager for 10 years.”

Some of his dad’s photos from the Indianapolis 500 ran in the pages of the Springfield News-Sun. Daughter Cheryl (now Heath) also developed her father’s interest in photography and graphic arts.

Howard Miller died in 1998, two years after daughter Linda.

As with Doug Acton, who shared his story with News-Sun readers last week, “the burning of O’Brien’s/McMurray’s (on June 7) brought back memories for me,” Larry Miller said. “I still analyze the operation of every restaurant I eat in. I usually tip pretty good, too, if the service is good. I know how hard they work.”

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