Goshen News, Goshen, IN

October 8, 2012

A community tragedy, one year later

Goshen College faculty, students hold on to memory of James Miller

By AMANDA GRAY
THE GOSHEN NEWS

GOSHEN — Though Professor James Miller no longer walks the halls of Goshen College’s Science Building, his presence is still felt.

From the research endowment bearing his name to the large image soon to be dedicated in remembrance, Miller’s memory echoes in the hearts of those who knew him, according to Ryan Sensenig, the biology chairman and one of Miller’s longtime colleagues.

“There are a lot of mixed emotions in the department,” Sensenig said Thursday. Miller is missed, but those in the Biology Department are happy with what has happened in the last year through his students and the research endowment. “The trouble is to articulate how it’s in the dark times that we see the true brightness of the human spirit,” Sensenig said.

The to-be-dedicated image, taken by Miller’s friend and the college’s associate professor Rich Manalis, explains a lot of the feelings many in the department have, Sensenig said. With his time cut short by a home invasion Oct. 9, 2011, Miller no longer has the opportunity to take on new adventures.

“It’s called ‘Imagined Destinations,’” Sensenig said about the photograph of a path stretching out into a wooded area. “He had goals, and you wonder about those missed opportunities.”

Many in the department had difficulty in moving on after Miller’s death, Sensenig said. One factor was time, or lack thereof; with classes to cover and other departmental demands, mourning could not fully happen.

“It’s amazing how much space we didn’t have,” Sensenig, looking back on the days immediately following Oct. 9, 2011. “Some of us took until the summer. People needed time to take some space. We all have to learn to cope.”

Miller meant a lot to the campus community, which is why his death was so hard to handle, according to Peter Martin, one of his students and mentees.

Martin, who took a class with Miller and spent a lot of time outside of the classroom with him, said he still hasn’t quite come to grips with the fact that his mentor is gone.

“We had a conversation the Friday before he died,” Martin said last week. “We talked about Goshen High School’s marching band. It feels eerie to have that conversation with him, and then having my mom come into my room Sunday morning and tell me that the professor I had cared so much about had died in such a way.”

Martin said he still expects to see Miller walking around Goshen College’s campus, coming up to him and telling him one of the jokes for which he was known.

“What impressed me most about him was how much he cared about his family and his students,” Martin said. “It felt more like losing a friend than a professor.”

Miller was an “old-school” professor, according to Martin. He taught the little things; he focused on the details. They didn’t always make sense at first, but those details helped Martin perform admirably on tests in Miller’s class and entrance exams for the possibility of medical school.

Richard Aguirre, director of public relations for the college, said Miller took the art of teaching to heart, and he held himself personally responsible for the success of his students.

“He used to use a scientific method on his tests,” Aguirre explained, “where he would look at the questions and ask himself, ‘Is there something else I could have done to have more students get this right?’ He would keep statistics of past tests and change tests as he saw different results. He didn’t want to test to get in the way of learning. He would even give students a second opportunity to retake tests.”

Beyond working with students on tests, Miller would make a point to connect with students on a personal level, often attending sporting events with students on the team or meeting them whenever they needed help in the classroom or on homework.

“He was just a really nice guy,” Aguirre said. “He was quiet and unassuming.”

Aguirre, who knew Miller as a friend, said that he continues to be missed on campus every day.

“Everyone loved him so much,” Martin said. “Even though he was taken away so terribly, his work lives on.”

It lives on in doctors and nurses in Goshen and around the country, Martin said, as well as students in medical research that could not have succeeded without Miller’s teaching.

Aguirre said those doctors and nurses were what Miller considered his biggest achievement.

“There are many physicians and nurses all over who say they owe their place in the field to their mentor,” Aguirre said. “He was proudest of the fact of those he taught that went on to become healers, either those who are healing through their research or direct healers, working with patients.”

Miller’s legacy lives on in Martin, in particular, who sat down earlier last week for an interview with Indiana University medical school personnel — a feat that would have not happened without Miller’s instruction.

“I knew I wouldn’t be in that interview chair without him,” Martin said, thinking back on the interview, which he hopes went well. Out of his nine applications to medical school, he has received no rejections and two offers for interviews. Time will tell where Martin ends up studying medicine.

“I think a lot about carrying on his legacy,” Martin said. “I want to make him proud and happy about where I continue this work.”

The Goshen College community will gather Tuesday to acknowledge Miller’s memory, according to Martin, who will speak at the ceremony. Those attending will gather at the prayer labyrinth on campus at 4:30 p.m. to dedicate a bench and new landscaping.

“I’m nervous to be speaking,” Martin admitted. “It’s hard to put into four to five minutes what he meant to the campus.”

Out of the tragedy of Miller’s death, the community’s close-knit nature have proven stronger than ever, Martin said.

“The way we have come together is good,” he said. “The counselors at Goshen have been great. There are times when I walk by his office...” Martin trailed off.

“It’s getting easier when I reflect on how he affected so many people,” he continued. “It’s good to know you can’t take away his impact. I hope when we have events like homecoming that he’s remembered, and that the alumni are telling the current students about him. I hope the college finds a tangible way to remember him, because he was so much more than just a professor, statistician and jokester.”