New Zealand’s longest-serving journalist, Frederick Walter Gascoyne Miller was born at Hastings on 19 September 1904, the son of Caroline Manners Gascoyne and her husband, Walter McNair Miller, a clerk in the Department of Agriculture. He attended Remuera School and Hutt District High School, until his father’s job took the family south to Invercargill. There, Fred went to Waihopai School and Southland Boys’ High School (1918–19), then on to Otago Boys’ High School in Dunedin (1919–21).
Miller began his journalism career as a cadet reporter with the Otago Daily Times in 1922. In 1927 the lovesick journalist followed his fiancée, Ngaire Malcolm, to South Africa, where she had gone with her parents to spend a year with her brother, a mine manager. Returning to New Zealand, Fred and Ngaire were married on 11 September 1928 at St John’s Anglican church in Dunedin. They would have five children (a son, then four daughters) over the next two decades.
The newlyweds moved to Christchurch, where Miller had found a job with the Press. However, in 1930 he joined the growing army of New Zealand workers laid off during the depression. After wielding a shovel in a relief gang in Dunedin, he tried his hand at gold prospecting in Central Otago. For three years from 1932 he and Ngaire and their young son lived in a cave near Gorge Creek on the banks of the Clutha River. When Miller found a more profitable claim they moved to an old stone house at nearby Fruitlands, where they spent another two years. He was to write about these experiences in There was gold in the river , first published in 1946.
In 1937 the family moved to Invercargill, where Miller resumed his journalism career. At first he worked on the morning newspaper, the Southland Times. After a three-year stint of home service during the Second World War, he switched to the afternoon paper, the Southland Daily News , where he began writing a popular daily column under the pen-name ‘The Gascon’. When the newspaper ceased publication in 1968 he returned to the Southland Times. Although he officially retired from the Times in 1973, at the age of 69, he would continue freelance work for another 23 years, including a regular column for the Gore Ensign. He wrote about his experiences as a journalist in Ink on my fingers , published in 1967.
While continuing his day job as a journalist, Miller established a long and distinguished career as a regional historian. From the late 1930s to the 1990s he wrote more than 20 books, including histories of Wakatipu, Waikaia, Cromwell, Hokonui and Southland County, and two volumes in the Otago centennial series: Golden days of Lake County (1949) and West to the fiords (1954). In all his writings he liked to look for the good in people and celebrate their achievements, without compromising credibility. His memory for facts and figures was legendary.
Through his newspaper work Miller also became probably New Zealand’s most prolific poet. As ‘The Poet’ he wrote a verse for every issue of the Southland Times from 1945 to 1976 – about 10,000 in all. The poems, which also appeared in the Daily News until it folded, were sponsored by a local baker, and usually provided witty comments on current events. Murihiku: the tail , an epic poem written in 1990 as part of New Zealand’s sesquicentennial celebrations, was published in book form, as were several other collections of his verse.
The newspaper man became closely involved in the community he wrote about. In 1953 he was elected to the Invercargill Licensing Trust, on which he served for the next 24 years, including terms as chairman. He was a member of the Invercargill Probus Club, the Victoria (Masonic) Lodge and St Peter’s Methodist Church; an executive member of the Southland branch of the National Council of Churches and the New Zealand Crippled Children Society; and a life member of the Lions Club of Invercargill and the New Zealand Journalists’ Association. He was also a knowledgeable and passionate gardener.
Fred Miller died in Southland Hospital, Invercargill, on 12 October 1996, aged 92, bringing to an end a journalism career that had spanned 74 years. He was survived by Ngaire (who died 20 months later) and his children. Through his work he had made an unmatched contribution to Southlanders’ knowledge of themselves, their province and its past. Official recognition had come in 1975 when he was appointed an OBE, but an ongoing tribute was the work of fellow journalists and writers he had encouraged and inspired.