Wilbur Leon Miller Jr., 53, works in his mechanic shop in Clarkson, often dressed in old Army fatigues. He’s the president of the Grayson County Veteran Resource Group and usually deploys to natural disasters across the state to provide emergency assistance. Wilbur’s grandkids named his shop “Papaw’s Garage” when he opened it a few years ago.
The whir of a kerosene heater, metal striking metal, a local country music station playing softly in the background and the smell of stale cigarette smoke welcome you to Papaw's Garage.
Wilbur Leon Miller Jr., 53, leans into a 2005 Chevy Equinox brought in for a suspected antifreeze leak. The problem ended up being a slow, steady stream from cracked lower intake gaskets he didn't discover until dismantling the engine days later.
"It's not much, but it means more to them than it does to me, but it makes me feel good because I've done something," Wilbur says. "I said it when I started, and I'll say it again, and I'll say it until I leave: you're not just a customer here at this place, you're family, and we'll take care of you like family."
"And I say 'we,' it's (just) me," Wilbur adds.
A hand-painted sign identifies Wilbur’s shop. “I started working on my own stuff when I was 15 years old,” he says. “That’s when I started learning about mechanics, but I’ve worked on my own stuff all my life with the exception of a few things that I didn’t know anything about at the time.” When he was in the military he worked on various equipment, including Army tanks, Humvees and trucks.
Wilbur smokes a cigarette while driving to pick up a trailer from his brother’s house to tow a broken-down SUV nearly to Louisville. Soft evening light illuminates the wedding band his wife, Teri Miller, 49, gave him on their wedding day 11 years ago.
Two of Wilbur’s grandkids, Katelynn Holben, 10, (from left) and Nolan Holben, 7, play music games and video call friends from their cell phones in front of the garage. Nolan had just gotten his first phone and was excited to get his papaw’s number so they can text.
Wilbur slides under a Subaru to replace the radiator and flush the engine of some discolored antifreeze before changing the oil and calling the owner to come pick it up.
Wilbur works to remove two burned out headlights while waiting for a supply delivery from a local shop. The woman driving the car mentioned one headlight had been out for a while and the other went out that morning, preventing her from making it to work.
Teri and Wilbur stand arm-in-arm on the front porch of their home with their 10-year-old rescue dog, Garth, at their feet. “He (Wilbur) would give you his last dime and do without if you and your family needed something,” Teri says. “He’s a gentle giant . . . there’s never been a dull moment. He’s got such a beautiful heart and soul that attracted me to him in the first place.”
When grandchildren Nolan (from left), Lucas Geary, 11, and Katelynn aren’t on their phones, they’re playing in stacks of ripped and waterlogged tires lying next to their grandfather’s shop.
A single light illuminates the shop floor while the setting sun shines through an American flag hanging over a window in the back of Papaw’s Garage as Wilbur closes up for the night. After turning on the porch light, locking the door and unfurling the flag hanging over the front office doorway, Wilbur shares a cigarette with a friend and a regular client before driving them home to help fix one of their cars.