Longtime Cotati driving school owner worked hard, had generous spirit
Roileen Miller, who taught generations of Sonoma County residents how to drive at her Miller Driving School in Cotati, died July 12, following complications from a colonoscopy. She was 80.
When news of her death reached her friends, everyone said the same thing: “We just thought she’d keep going,” according to her youngest daughter, Kelly Waller.
For 42 years, Miller, who lived in Rohnert Park, was the force behind the driving school, established for her by her father, Roy Miller, in 1979. He had opened the original Miller Driving School in 1964 in Palm Springs, where Roileen grew up.
“She had an old-school work ethic. Whether she was sick or tired, she kept working. That driving school was everything to her,” Waller said. “She wanted to make her father proud, and pass that spirit down. She was always smiling, always a bright light.”
“He wanted to open a school for me when I moved here,” Miller told a Press Democrat correspondent in a 2014 article. “If I didn’t like it, he would sell it. But I ended up liking it, which is funny because I never liked riding in cars.”
The busy single mother of two daughters (Kelly, now 54 of Santa Rosa and Holly, 59 of Antlers, Oklahoma), she was well known in the small town of Cotati. In 2014 the Cotati Chamber of Commerce awarded her a certificate recognizing her for 35 years in the community and for being one of the first women to own and run a business in town.
The proclamation praised her contributions, saying local independent businesses like hers helped “preserve the character of the city and give us a sense of community.”
She went by Roileen Miller at the school, even though her legal last name was Baumgardner from her husband, whom she divorced. She never remarried.
A friend, Michelle Stewart, commented on Miller’s online funeral notice, “So sorry to hear of Roileen’s passing. Her driving school was around the corner from my dad’s glass shop for as long as I can remember. She taught both me and my oldest son how to drive. She was a very special lady.”
Miller said in the 2014 article that the oldest student she had taught and passed so far was a 97-year-old man “who was sharp as a tack.” She told the reporter she would keep operating the business and teaching until it was no longer safe. “That means until I am 97,” she said, laughing.
Miller and her staff didn’t only teach teenagers how to make a proper turn or drive on the freeway — she educated disabled adults and others who found getting a driver’s license a way to gain independence.
One student in her 30s had secretly enrolled so she could divorce her husband, Miller said in the 2014 article.
“Every time she passed him, she would duck down behind the wheel. I would shout, ‘What are you doing?’”
Miller also helped people with hearing issues and language barriers. She made up cue cards for the hearing impaired and enlisted a friend to act as translator for a student from Vietnam.
“She really loved teaching people to drive,” Waller recalled. “She found it extremely rewarding.”
Helping students work hard to accomplish their goals fell into line with Miller’s belief that when you put in the effort, you get rewarded like nothing else in life, she said.
“If we work hard and pursue our goals, we have the right to be proud. We become powerful,” Miller had written recently in a note Waller found.
When local high schools stopped teaching behind-the-wheel driving soon after the state pulled funding for the program in 1990, “most everyone came to Miller’s,” Waller said. Miller brought in representatives of Mothers Against Drunk Driving to talk to students about the importance of driving sober. She also invited police officers to discuss road rage and railroad company officials to talk about crossing tracks safely.
Miller felt she was doing a service for the entire community.
“She wanted to make sure that everyone understood why it’s important to have safe drivers for the whole community, that ‘I’m releasing a safe driver,’ ” Waller said.
Roileen Jeanette Miller, her first name a feminized portmanteau of her parents’ names, Roy and Eileen, was born Sept. 29, 1940, in Santa Monica, the oldest of three children, which included her brother, David, and sister, Shirley.
Miller graduated from Palm Springs High School in 1959. After marrying Vern Baumgardner in 1960, having children and being a stay-at-home mom, she worked as a receptionist and office manager at a dental practice and for a veterinarian. In 1976 she and her daughters moved to Gualala, where she worked for a year as a nature photographer. After the family moved to Rohnert Park, Miller worked as a receptionist at Petaluma Dental Group.
Known by her many close friends as “Roi,” she traveled all over with them, loved going to the ocean and was an accomplished, award-winning painter. Miller belonged to the Sonoma County Corvette Club for 13 years. She had a 1979 blue Chevrolet Corvette, then purchased a 1967 convertible Chevelle that she loved to display in car shows.
“Every last day of school she would pick up my boys (Daniel and Alex Waller) and everybody would be like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool,’” Waller said.
She also taught both of her grandsons how to drive.
Miller had a generous spirit in other ways. When a needy family moved into Rohnert Park in the late 1970s, she decided to give them her brand new Toyota Camry.
“She said God placed the need to give them the car in her heart. She didn’t talk much about it, she just did things like that,” Waller said.
The family business had to be dissolved soon after Miller died, after the pandemic took a financial toll and Waller said her disability, nerve damage in her feet, kept her from taking it over.
“I think it’s almost a compliment that it ends with her,” she said. “One of her friends said you know what, no one else could have matched your mom in that business.”
In addition to her daughters and siblings, she is survived by her son-in-law, Dwayne Boggs, with whom she was especially close.
You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect the correct name of Miller’s brother and that Dwayne Boggs is her son-in-law.