January 27, 2011 |

Entrepreneur Miles remembered for energy, humor

Dennis Miles, a colorful and energetic businessman who made friends of customers at his Main Street furniture store, died Sunday of an apparent heart attack while skiing on Mosquito Lake. He was 63.

Former banker Dick Flegel said the town wouldn’t be the same. "Our community has a personality. When we lose somebody like Dennis, we lose a part of what makes us who we are."

Larry Wilkins filled his home with furniture from Miles’ store. "He was one of those guys who you got the feeling right away that he was treating you fair about stuff."

He said Miles was a natural salesman.

After going into furniture sales, Miles added appliances, then – as they came on the market – flat-screen televisions and digital cameras. He bought a box of antique doorknobs for a building project, then fashioned leftover ones into coat racks and wine stoppers he sold in his store, along with paperbacks he’d read.

Miles cultivated a wide range of interests and his self-effacing sense of humor drew people to him.

Jerry Lapp, whose wife Kathi owns 33 Mile Roadhouse, said Miles liked to ride his snowmachine fast but was prone to humorous mishaps. "We’d look forward to him throwing his sled in a hole or rolling it down the hill. He’d bend the skis so they looked like Leprechaun feet."

In sports, Miles held the distinction of winning both the Alcan 200 snowmachine race and the 10K race in the Buckwheat Ski Classic. "He was one of the few, maybe the only person, to enter both," said skier Chip Lende. "Dennis was not only a top competitor, but he got along with everyone."

Miles entered local running races, triathlons and cycling events, competing in Lycra tights with an eye-catching, blue-jean pattern. He also raced dirt bikes at a vacation home he owned in the California desert.

Lapp said that when the original roadhouse burned, Miles secured the money to re-build. "Dennis co-signed the loan, and he worked on it the whole time with us." He also served as an Elks Club member, and a member of the boards of KHNS and his fire service district.

Miles enjoyed skiing on community trails created and maintained with his own equipment, sometimes spray-painting funny ads for his store on the snow. He also groomed trails for the nearby Covenant Life Center. "He’d come over to the farm a couple days a week and set two trails several miles long each. He did this for years," Tim Maust said.

Miles was born Dec. 4, 1947 in Philadelphia to Thomas Miles and Sophia Harmatek. The family moved to Ohio, then to Sunnyvale, Calif. where Miles graduated from high school in 1965.

Miles told friends he didn’t have time for sports because he cleaned his father’s bar, "The Foxy Lady," before school and, after school, helped in his father’s upholstery business. By the time he was 19, Miles was married, with a child.

While working at his father’s upholstery business, he tired of California. "He said he was stuck in traffic one day when he realized ‘I need to do something else,’" said Mary Miles, his wife since 2001.

He left for Alaska in 1973, in a dune buggy he built. On arriving, he played drums in local bands and found upholstery work. He settled into a highway cabin with friends and turned an old van into a rolling shop. "He’d drive that van into town and work long hours every day and drive back out the road, saving his nickels for the next step," said Gene Kennedy.

Five years ago, Miles turned over his store to his wife and took up building log homes full-time, based on experience he’d gained erecting his own log home at 25 Mile, a place where he kept a garden, chicken and pigs. He built a family cabin on Mosquito Lake and the Eagle View Lodge along the Klehini River.

Miles met Mary at the Hotel Halsingland bar in 1989. They married in Las Vegas in 2001. "Dennis was so nervous our friends gave him a beer. The magistrate said, ‘I now pronounce you best friends for life’ and we were," Mary said.

Miles was a vocal proponent of shopping locally, Mary said. "Dennis hated box stores like Home Depot. I couldn’t tell you where Costco is in Juneau. We have never been there."

Miles also gave generously to area organizations, recently donating air miles for a Scout trip to Ecuador.

Dick Flegel recalled that years ago he asked then-upholsterer Miles to sew a case for an electric meter. Miles stitched a dollar sign on it. "He put it there because I was the banker, and thought it was funny. He said if I didn’t like it he would make another one. I still have that padded case." Other upholstery work ranged from seats on Skagway train cars to custom barstools for regulars at the Pioneer Bar.

Miles is survived by wife Mary of Haines, mother Sophia Graham of Ohio, son Thomas of Santa Cruz, Calif., sister Melinda Vennard of White Sulfur Springs, Mont., grandchildren Katie and Ryan Miles, and a nephew, Josh McConnell.

Donations may be made to the Haines or Klehini Valley fire departments. There will be a party celebrating Miles’ life at Eagle View Lodge in May. Cards may be sent to Mary Miles at P.O. Box 513.