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Woman to Woman, an interview with Helen Miller
By Bev McMullen
All the players were in place. Rick and Gayle McGraw, owners of Heldena II, Gord Wilson and wife Janet, owners of B-IV, Murray Walker, owner of Clarie II and his girlfriend Pam Blair, and over 200 spectators decked out in straw bowler hats with black Heldena ribbons and racing bandanas. Also present, Helen Miller, the namesake of Heldena II, daughter of Fred Miller, the untouchable Great Lakes Gold Cup winner. All were gathered for the re-launching of Heldena II and a re-creation of the past when boats like these raced each other in the early twenties. History repeating itself.

Helen Miller seemed overwhelmed with the whole shebang but was excited about her first ever ride in her father’s famous “Black Boat”. We sat and talked for a few minutes. She told me that she was 8 years old when her father died. She does not remember her father nor does she remember the boat. She told me that her mother never talked about her father’s sudden death at 44 years old at the height of his racing fame. Helen said her father lived a full and incredible life and was an extremely hard worker. He lived hard.

She said nearly 8 decades later she got a phone call “right out of the blue” and agreed to go to Rockwood to Peter Breen’s “barn” as she called it to see for the first time the Heldena II. Helen said she was “simply speechless” when all she saw was a skeleton of a boat in a barn and that she “couldn’t get over the size”. “I went to Peter Breen’s three times,” she said, and “once to sign the chairs with my name as a souvenir for Rick McGraw”. After visiting Peter Breen’s and reading about the history of the boat, she said, “I thought it was unbelievable what young Matt Fairbrass did in finding the boat”. “I still thought it was shocking to see the enormous size of the boat, to me, it wasn’t a racer as it was too big”. “After hearing Matt’s story I just couldn’t believe what he had done, with the help of Gravenhurst boatbuilder Mike Windsor.” “Then I started to get to know Rick McGraw, at first I was scared and overwhelmed with the whole thing because unlike my father, I live a very quiet and sedate lifestyle. I was nervous at first but when I came to Muskoka with my friends we simply had a wonderful time.”

“To me”, Helen said, “the whole story of my father’s boat is unbelievable. After talking for hours to Rick McGraw, he inspired me to reflect back on my charismatic and daring father.” “At first, I didn’t like all the hype but when I saw what that couple (the McGraw’s) did for Heldena’s big party, I was truly speechless.” “My heart pounded when Rick took me down to the water to see the boat, I was overcome with emotion as I could not fathom how Peter Breen put this together and how enormous it looked…I was speechless”.

She told me that she was surprised when they brought out a specially designed wooden bridge ramp so that she could walk on her own with dignity into her father’s boat. “I think there are only pictures of my rear end when I christened the boat with Champagne, it was starting to become fun and when I was beside Rick in the front seat, I was impressed.” “Everybody was on the boat, Rick, Peter, Matt, Jane, Mary Jean and off we went”. “I was real nervous when you (Bev) got up and walked to the end of the bow and took our pictures. You were very brave”, said Helen.

“When I was out in the boat, something happened inside me and I had this great craving to understand everything Rick was telling me” Helen said. “I started to feel a spark of something that must have been hidden inside me all my life…I want to live another year so that I can drive Heldena”. “I didn’t feel Rick went fast enough, it wasn’t as fast as I thought it was going to be and it was then that I wanted to drive”, she said.

Rick McGraw is reliving Fred Miller’s dream, and perhaps fulfilling it by taking his daughter, Helen, for her first ride in her namesake, Heldena II. She was very impressed with what was done in honor of her father. Hats off to you Helen, I’ll see you next year behind the wheel of Heldena.