YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio– The truth about Kevin D. Miller’s family name had long been buried.
But the shock of discovering his surname was a fabrication was matched only by the story of why it was changed.
Miller, of California, was born in Canton and spent part of his childhood there. All of his life, he and his family were the Millers. They had no reason to suspect that the surname was adopted by his grandfather, Stanley Puchalski, in 1920 to keep the authorities off his trail.
The discovery first came to light 20 years ago after a relative had a family genealogy report done just for fun. It prompted Miller to come to Trumbull County to do research into his family. After gathering the whole amazing story, Miller turned it into a lightly fictionalized novel, “Heart of Steel,” which was released in November.
Once the Miller family was faced with the truth, it couldn’t rest until it uncovered the story of Stanley (Puchalski) Miller.
As a teen, he and his four siblings lived on a farm with their mother and hard-drinking and violent father in Southington Township. They were sent to an orphanage in Warren after their father was murdered and their mother was sent to jail.
The Puchalski children soon fled the orphanage, changed their name to Miller, and vowed to never speak of it again.
The author recalls the day he first heard the shocking truth. It was at a family funeral in 1999 when a cousin came up to his uncle with some papers.
“She said, ‘You might want to read these because your name isn’t Miller,’ ” he said. “We all started reading them, stories from The (Warren) Tribune-Chronicle.
“After a few years, we started digging deeper,” Miller continued. “My dad wanted to write a book about my granddad, a documentary. He approached me and asked if I would do it. So I took his documents and started doing more research.”
Miller, who is retired, spent the last three years doing more research, including making trips to Warren and Youngstown, and writing the book.
He started with the documents that had already been secured by his father, which included court filings from his great-grandmother’s trial, and others from the orphanage, as well as an inventory of the Trumbull County farm that had to be abandoned.
“I eventually found that farm,” Miller says, after going through records during a trip to the Mahoning Valley.
“I worked with a historian from the [Trumbull County] historical society who was intrigued by the story,” Miller says. “She got me a plat map from 1899 and I knew exactly where the property was,” he says.
Miller also set about to find the grave of his murdered great-grandfather, George Puchalski, at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Warren, but was unsuccessful.
“I never could find it,” he says.
While Miller was able to unearth the framework of the life of his grandfather, the details would never be fully known.
“That’s why I wrote it as historical fiction based on a true story,” he says. “Most of it is true.”
The story of Stanley Miller is an amazing one. As a teenager, he hopped a freight train to Chicago where he found work and later returned to Ohio, eventually getting into the bar business in Canton.
For the sake of storytelling, Miller creates characters based on shadowy knowledge and writes scenes and dialog that are plausible but are only suggested by his research.
But the framework of the novel is fact.
As the truth was slowly unraveled by Miller’s research and shared with his family, things that his grandfather said over the years were seen in a new light and took on more meaning.
For example, Stanley Miller told one of his sons – the author’s uncle – that his mother went to prison for bootlegging. “We later realized he said that to cover up the murder,” says the author. “It all started to make sense later, how he covered it up.”
Miller says his uncle was with his grandfather in his final days. Even on his deathbed, Stanley Miller refused to talk about his past, just as he did his entire life.
“He took all of that stuff to the grave,” says the author.
Pictured: An early 1900s wedding photo of Stella and George Puchalski, with whom the story begins.
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