The name and number of an old college friend on Caller ID is usually a prelude to good times; remembering old stories and sharing new ones, digging up memories, and seeing where each other’s lives have been and are going. I knew this call was different. A ringing phone rarely brings good news after Ten PM and I knew something was very wrong.
I absorbed the information from Preston in bits, trying hard to separate his words from the pulse of blood rushing in my ears, and pulled out the essential basics:
Rodney Miller - "Rock" Miller if you went to Millikin University in the mid 80s - had been killed in an accident. He was on his way home from work. It was a car accident, somewhere outside Champaign. Sorry... that is about all I know right now. Maybe you can make some calls? Find out more and I'll see what I can find out, too? Will you call Joe and let him know? So sorry to have to tell you this...
Sgt Rodney Miller was a detective with the Illinois State Police and a sixteen year veteran of that proud agency. He was driving to his home in Decatur from a case in Champaign when his squad and another vehicle collided violently in a rural intersection, killing him instantly. Only 40, he left behind his wife, Karla, two young sons, Daley and Zach, his parents and family and, as I would learn, hundreds or more friends and acquaintances whose lives he had touched on the job as a trooper and investigator, and off duty by just being Rodney.
Larger than life was an apt description for Rodney. We met while both students at Millikin in his hometown of Decatur, IL, after joining the same fraternity. Rodney was a good student, sharp and insightful, but an extraordinary swimmer. Six time NCAA Division III Champion/multiple All-American in several events level of extraordinary. Add in the see-all–the-girls-stop-and-gawk looks to the brains and athleticism and he was the kind of guy we mere mortals could easily resent if not for the fact he was just so damned nice! The nicest person in our class? No, that was probably the woman he would later marry, Karla.
I lost touch with Rodney after graduation, except for the occasional wedding of mutual friends, but often thought of tracking him down with a call or email, especially since we had both ended up in the same profession. I never followed through - there will always be another day, right? - and was left with only reflections of the garrulous, funny, friendly kid I knew almost two decades before as I drove to Decatur for the funeral.
The turnout at a police funeral is usually large, but I was surprised at the vast number of squads when I arrived at the assembly point, with representative from all across not only Illinois, but states as far away as Arkansas. As I began circulating among a group officers and deputies from central Illinois, it became very apparent how far Rodney's reach extended. In that area of our state, a mix of small and mid-sized cities, tiny towns, and wide open rural areas, multijurisdictional cooperation is essential and a state police investigator will get to know and work closely with a range of officers from a variety of agencies.
While it seemed most of them in the group I found had worked a case with Rodney at some point or another it was clear they were not there just out of respect for a brother LEO, or because of a professional connection developed during an investigation. This was personal. Each of them genuinely liked Rodney, and the pain they felt was for that of a lost personal friend. They spoke of his laugh, of his sense of humor, of his excitement for the job, of his genuine enthusiasm for just having the opportunity to meet you, and for the sense that you opened a case as colleagues and closed it as friends. They spoke of his kindness. Some who knew him best even spoke of the love and pride he had for Karla and his boys, and was eager to express to anyone who would listen. They all seemed to agree: Rodney was not just a good guy... he was a great guy!