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Shelby's prominent deaths in 2011: Miller, Armstrong headline noted group

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Donor of Red Orchard, former longtime magistrate are just 2 who left behind significant legacies.

By Steve Doyle

The passing in 2011 of four men who showed their love for Shelby County in a variety of ways – with public service and determined legacies – left significant gaps in the foundation of the community.

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All of them served in their unique ways, but perhaps none of them expanded the imprint of Shelby County more than Clarence Miller, who died in August at the age of 98.

Miller was not only a great agricultural leader who served governments and presidents – he was the assistant secretary of agriculture during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s final years in office and the agricultural attaché’ to the American Embassy in Madrid during President Richard Nixon’s tenure – but he also was a farmer on 132 acres of land that he tended after retirement and ultimately donated to the Shelby County Parks Board at Red Orchard Park.

“He was a very giving person, not just to his family, but to everyone,” said his nephew, Lowry Miller, Shelby County’s circuit court clerk. “He loved Shelby County very much, and that was the reason he gave up the farm, because he wanted everybody to know how much he loved it.”

Former state Sen. Gary Tapp called Miller a “world-class individual.”

“I’ve known Clarence for about thirty-five years, and he was a gentleman of the highest class,” he said. “You could always get good advice from him; he was a really good guy.”

But he wasn’t the only good guy who loved Shelby County.

Cordell “Cordy” Armstrong served 25 years as a Shelby County magistrate and only had retired in 2010 before losing a bout with cancer last summer. He was 79.

One of the founding fathers of the Shelby County Fire Department, Chester J. Bemiss, and former Shelby County Sheriff Fred Ruble both also passed away, putting periods on lives that had remarkable public contributions.

Those public servants…an athletic star, the beloved daughter of a prominent family and the business-founding patriarch of another…an educator, war veterans, a nurse, a former journalist, an entertainer, a captain of industry…even a man who designed buildings you probably see every day....these are among the more renowned citizens Shelby County lost in 2011.

All of them had significant impacts far beyond those who knew and loved them.

During Armstrong’s time on Shelby County Fiscal Court, he saw tremendous growth in both the county’s population and the services required to serve those people.

“No one, and I mean no one, worked harder for the people than Cordy Armstrong,” Magistrate Mike Whitehouse said. “His loyalty to the people is his legacy. He always served his county well, and I always admired him for that. We were the best of friends, and I will miss him.”
Bemiss, who died in September, was one of a core group of a half-dozen men who came together in the 1960s not only to make the county safer but to expand the facilities and services for the volunteer fire department.

“They laid the foundation and the blueprint for fire services in Shelby County,” Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger said. “They were the trend-setters, back in the early years, on up into the eighties. They provided so much leadership for the fire service. They worked day and night at that volunteer fire department to make it what it is today. They put in a lot of blood and sweat, and they rolled up their sleeves and figured out a way to get it done.”

Ruble,74, was sheriff from 1983-89, the predecessor of current Sheriff Mike Armstrong, and he also was known as a pillar of the community of Bagdad.

“Freddie was about as down to earth as anyone could be. Whenever he’d see you, he would go out of his way to speak to you and say hi,” Rothenburger said. “And I never saw anybody more devoted to their wife [Neva, who also died in 2011] than he was. She has been ill for a quite a while, and he stayed by her side through all of that.”

Quintin Biagi Sr. was a noted architect among whose designs was the former Shelbyville City Hall that is now the city’s Fire Station No. 1, at the corner of Main and 11th streets.

Doris Ruble helped deliver more babies and tend to more sick than most anyone living in Shelby County, spending 57 years as a nurse under three different managements at Shelbyville’s hospital.

Herbie Kays was known as one of the greatest athletes to come out of Shelbyville High School, and Susie Saunders was one of the school’s great educators and music teachers.

Joseph E. Burks, 89, was the head of a family who established and continues to own Shelby County’s John Deere dealership.

“If you’re a farmer, you’ll remember Dad for caring about the success of every farmer in Shelby County,” said his daughter, Bonnie Burks Gray.

As a company executive, Frank Goodwin, 79, helped build the plant near Interstate 64 for the Budd Company – the forerunner of Martinrea Heavy Stamping – and contributed heavily to several community enterprises.

Betty Thom, 75, who with her longtime husband, Harold, was a founder of the noted folk music group The Cumberlands, passed away while watching TV in her home near Simpsonville.

And although Lisa Matthews, 56, lost a 9-year battle with Multiple Sclerosis, her community contributions, like others’, won’t be forgotten.

In December, the Shelby County Historical Society dedicated an exhibit room at the Heritage/Welcome Center Museum on Main Street in her honor because she was an advocate for having such a facility.

“After we [the society] sold the Stanley Casey House, she was the one who thought we should have a museum,” said her father, William E. Matthews. “So she was one of the originators of the museum concept.”