Weekly Feature

2015-07-22 / Obituaries

Van and I

Ray Collins, a former area resident, newscaster and Bee carrier recounts growing up in the shadow of his legendary mentor

Ray Collins is reunited with his mentor and friend, Van Miller, in 2011. Ray Collins is reunited with his mentor and friend, Van Miller, in 2011. I first met Van Miller in the early 1970s at the Buffalo Tennis Center on Elmwood Avenue where my father played tennis in the winter. I knew right away he was unlike anyone I had met before. He seemed more vibrant and animated. People seemed to light up when they saw him, and he made everyone feel special in return.

Van took me under his wing when I told him I was interested in a career in sportscasting. I’d go to his TV station across the street from the tennis center to watch him produce the nightly sportscasts. I’d sit next to his desk and watch in awe as the titans of Buffalo television broadcasting of the era streamed in and out of the newsroom. Bob Koop, Marie Rice, Rich Newberg; the list goes on.

“Do you know my nephew, Raymie?” Van playfully asked each person in his velvety smooth voice. He made me feel important. He was a dude: He wore jewelry and sporty clothes, and made everyone lighten up. I liked to walk in his wake and bask in the glow. Sometimes he’d make his own fun if he thought things were too quiet in the newsroom: One time he picked up his phone and began a make-believe conversation with himself that caused the entire newsroom to stop and look.

“Sports. Hello, this is Van Miller ... yeah ... yeah ... well, I don’t appreciate your tone and don’t ever call me again!” He’d build to a crescendo and slam the phone down. People who knew Van would chuckle and say, “It never gets old,” as Van would wink to the rest of us who didn’t realize we were all just put on.

Van was always on. I can recall when he narrated a trampoline related story during the news and began bouncing in his seat. The viewers never knew.

Van was play-by-play announcer for both the football and basketball teams in Buffalo. One of the highlights of my childhood was when he coordinated with my family while we were in Boston to allow me to ride the Braves’ team bus from the hotel to the Boston Garden and shadow him before, during and after the game with the Celtics. It was surreal for a 12-year-old kid to be along for the ride with Bob McAdoo, Ernie D and the others. (Van even asked me to keep track of the individual scoring, but that was asking too much of my young attention span.)

Van invited my father (George Collins) — and sometimes me — to play tennis with many of the Bills and Braves players and coaches over the years. It included everyone from Bills owner Ralph Wilson to Braves coach Jack Ramsey.

Van eventually helped me get a paid internship at Channel 4 in the summer of 1983. I would have been there anyway, but now it was official. It was the summer Robert Redford was filming “The Natural,” and many of my assignments were around the casting calls at the Rock Pile. Back at the station, Van and I used to play a prank on “rookie” interns. He had me ask him about his “dog jaw,” and when the unsuspecting interns leaned in to learn more, Van would bark at them.

I recall having a heart-to-heart with Van about all the hours and years I had logged at the station, and wondering if it really guaranteed success. He answered in a way only Van could.

“Well, sure, Raymie, you can’t be a ball boy all your life and expect to play in Wimbledon.”

I never played in Wimbledon, but I did manage to have a career in broadcasting — including a magical five years anchoring the news at Channel 4 in the 1990s, back where it all began as a kid. I’ll never forget the first time I appeared with Van on “live” TV during the 6 p.m. news.

I said, “Well, this is something — I’ve waited 25 years to say, ‘Now with sports, here’s Van Miller.’”

“All right, thank you Raymie,” and off he went, pivoting to his one-shot, turning on that magical voice and leaving me feeling like I had reached a milestone.

Van was a pro on the air. His cross-talk with the anchors rarely fell short. I still recall the time he tossed back to Carol Jasen and playfully took a poke at her co-anchor, “Did you realize that he was a two-time All-American tackling dummy?”

No matter where I lived during my career, I always found a way to attend a Buffalo Bills game and sit with Van in the broadcasting booth. Five different stadiums. He always made me feel special, and for that matter, he made everyone around him feel that way.

In the summer of 2011, I called Van’s house and asked his longtime wife, Gloria, if I could come by and see Van. He had since retired, I hadn’t seen him in eight years and I didn’t know who would be on the other side of that door.

But he greeted me with that familiar vibrating baritone, “Raymie!” He had on a teal golf shirt, a necklace with a bison dangling over the front of the collar, tennis shorts and sneakers. He moved a little slower as he began showing me his home and all the awards and trophies he had accumulated over the years. But he didn’t have to impress me. I already knew he had been the single most important person in my professional career.

As we posed for a picture in his living room and he suggested a much spicier word than “cheese,” I felt comfort he hadn’t lost his sense of humor and his ability to make people laugh.

Van stood at the door and waved goodbye as I backed out of his driveway. It seemed like he didn’t want me to leave, and part of me didn’t want to either. For that hour we reunited in his living room, he was Van Miller in his prime, and I was the awestruck 10-year old little boy looking up at my idol, who never let me down.

(Ray Collins is a former WIVB-TV anchor and now Sarasota based media consultant. For details, visit www.Ray CollinsMedia.com)

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