Weekly Local Biography

  Frank Miller

On November 22, 1963, the President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas in the U.S. Most U.S. citizens who were alive at that time remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. Frank Miller remembers, and his shock and grief caused him to stop and take stock of himself, to break away from the expected patterns of his life, and to change focus.

He was completing a Master’s degree thesis titled “International Education and World Peace”, and he was idealistic. He thought the time had come to put his convictions into action. He went to his local post office and picked up an application to join the Peace Corps. Kennedy had been the driving force behind this voluntary service organization. The young people of America had been politically sensitized and service oriented by his message, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”.

When the application asked his preference for a country of service, Frank broke the rules by writing out “India” for first, second and third choices. And the next
thing he knew he was in Peace Corps training studying Hindi. He had no idea that this experience would change his life.

His first home in India was in the center of a tea garden in Punjab, 5,000 feet high
in the foothills of the Himalayas. The setting was lush, and he was enchanted with its beauty and serenity. But life didn’t stay serene as India and Pakistan engaged in the first of two wars. The U.S. Embassy called all of the Peace Corps volunteers back, but the four living in Punjab didn’t want to go. Then the Ambassador sent his private car to evacuate them, and they knew better than to argue. With nothing to do while the war waged on, he decided to travel, third class, of course, on the railway. Third class in the 1960s meant packed cars, wooden benches, and oily soot-covered clothing and skin. But it also meant that he saw some of the most amazing sites he had ever seen, was exposed to many languages and cultures, and developed lifelong interests in the religions of the world. It was, he says, “training for living in other cultures and training for citizenship and life”. He converted to Buddhism. The seeds were sown for a different kind of life.

When he returned to the United States, the Viet Nam conflict was raging. He was no soldier; he was Buddhist. But the draft board rejected his application as a Conscientious Objector, and he seemed headed to war. He informally managed to avoid the draft by simply aging. At 26, he was “too old”.

He went to work teaching English in a ghetto in Seattle, Washington. The poorest of the poor were his students. He was interested in making life better, and became interested in natural foods, in food cooperatives and in communal living. He was hired as the manager of the Peuget Consumers Cooperative, which specialized in natural foods. He married, and he and his wife formed a workers’ commune with another couple. As a political activist, he worked and eventually saved the now famous Pike Place Farmers’ Market from the axe of Urban Renewal. Everything in his background was coming together – politics, religion, food, nature and even art. He and his wife had a baby, and decided that it was time to leave the commune to exercise more control over how their family lived. He went to work at the Sound Food Restaurant and Bakery, a natural food and materials retailer.

But things changed, the marriage ended and Frank changed jobs. This time he joined the Public Broadcasting System. He didn’t even own a television, but he loved the job with its endless stream of fascinating people. And he had an opportunity to refine his
writing style. He worked part-time at a bookstore selling travel books, and this eventually led to yet another job co-operating a travel agency that specialized in travel to Asia.
His interest in Asia was reawakened, and when he sold his share of the business he invested the proceeds in a teahouse. There were no teahouses in Seattle at that time, and little tea expertise. He and his partner researched the sources of tea by traveling all over the East – Japan, India, China, and Taiwan. They simply fell in love with tea.

Eventually he left the part-
nership and started his
own company, Blue Willow, named for the 1790s Spode teacup pattern. The tea company’s mission was to practice the art of tea, with all of its community and social implications. The tea caf้ was beautifully decorated and inviting, offering a wide variety of teas as well as natural foods. Chinese tea cans held over fifty kinds of tea from Asia, and an old Chinese herb cabinet held samples of the trademark “Blue Willow” teas. Artwork from Thailand and all over Southeast Asia completed the setting. It was heady stuff, a wonderful coming together of all of the things that Frank knew and loved.

But time passed, and with the years came both loss and opportunity. His parents died, and his son grew up. He took a hard look at his finances. He was nearing retirement age, but had very little to look forward to financially. His life had been about tea and Buddhism, natural foods and flowing with the rhythms of all of these things, not about making money. So he sat down with his cat to sort it all out. He wanted to go where “Bush couldn’t reach me”, and he knew Thailand from his travels. It was the jewel, even his cat agreed. So the inevitable yard sale followed, and Frank Miller is now living in Chiang Mai. He is a tea expert, eager to be closer to the Buddhist traditions of the East, a fit and young retiree who is “ready for life” in his new home.