News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 11, 2011

A steady look at years of reaching children

TERRE HAUTE — I recognized that steady look on Mark Miller’s face.

On Tuesday morning, he wore it while talking with a teary-eyed student and a parent in his office at Sarah Scott Middle School. In 1975, he wore that expression in the third-base coaching box at Honey Creek Junior High. These days, kids know him as their principal. All those years ago, we called him “Coach.” Same good, decent guy, though.

Sometimes, the right people cross our paths. When that occurs, it’s a fortunate thing, because the opposite can happen, too.

Through 39 years, hundreds of youngsters and teenagers came to know Miller as their shop teacher (later labeled “industrial arts” and then “technology”), coach, dean, assistant principal and principal. The 450 students currently filling the classrooms of Sarah Scott represent the last group on that continuum. Miller is retiring at the end of this school year.

“Without question, the biggest thing I’ll miss is the kids,” he said. “When you come in, you never know what you’ll be faced with.”Apparently, the dozen or so shaggy-haired 15-year-olds who comprised his 1975 Honey Creek Bees freshman baseball team turned out to be a pleasant surprise for him. That was the first of Miller’s 37 years in the Vigo County School Corp. (He started his career in Tippecanoe and Montgomery counties, before moving to Terre Haute — the hometown of his wife, Jan, and the site of Miller’s alma mater, Indiana State University.)

That season unfolded almost magically. We could do no wrong. We never lost. Our closest threat came from the Otter Creek Otters, who battled us in an 11-inning season opener that ended in a 1-1 tie, called because of darkness. The two teams played a rematch to decide the county title during the last week of that school year. “Under perfect weather conditions,” as described in a May 29, 1975, Terre Haute Star story, Honey Creek won 4-2.

“Here I am, 24 years old, and I’m thinking, ‘This is easy,’” Miller recalled, grinning at the memory. “The talent we had, and the pitching was just tremendous. It was fun to watch.”

And it was fun to play on that team. I was the catcher, who swung an Adirondack 34 with a sweet spot that seemed three-feet wide. (Bats were wooden then.) That season remains a good memory, and Coach Miller deserves credit for that. He kept baseball a game. For a couple months, the old ball diamond, hidden in the woods behind the school, became our oasis. A quirky oasis, to be sure. You had to follow a trail and hop the creek to reach it. The field was a clearing, fully surrounded by trees. The left-field “fence” was a collection of maples, oaks and pines. The third-base line flooded easily, so we devised ways to drain it.

“It was an old field, but we took care of it,” Miller said. “It was ours.”

Foul balls often disappeared in the foliage. “We used to tease the visitors that there were alligators in that swamp,” Miller said, chuckling. “And we’d lose baseballs by the dozens.”

The place suited Miller. He spent 19 years at Honey Creek, before moving to Terre Haute South Vigo High School for five years as a teacher and then dean, and then to West Vigo High School for four years as assistant principal. Miller became principal at Sarah Scott 11 years ago, “and it’s just flown by,” he said.

The kids of 2011 aren’t so different from those in 1975. “Kids will really just do what you ask of them,” Miller said. “I don’t know that kids have changed that much, but society has, and that can make it difficult.”

As for his own childhood, Miller grew up in tiny Howesville, where he somehow got tagged with the nickname “Hoot.” For those unfamiliar, “It’s just east of Black Cat,” he explained with a laugh. (Or, between Clay City and Jasonville.) He played baseball at Shakamak High School, where the sport is simply part of the community’s culture. After graduating in 1969, Miller was determined to work in the coal mines, just as his father and grandfather had done. His dad urged him to consider college.

“He said, ‘If you go, I’ll pay for it,’” Miller recalled. After initially resisting, he agreed to go to ISU. Along with his parents’ financial help, Miller worked at Stran Steel and as a custodian at ISU to cover the costs, and graduated in just three years. He landed a job at East Tippecanoe Junior High School in Lafayette and never left the education profession. Leaving it now, through retirement, isn’t easy, either, though Miller, 60, and Jan — his wife of 38 years — have plans to spend time with their two daughters and two grandchildren.

Memories of students, past and present, have filled Miller’s thoughts lately. In fact, he decided to make a list of 39 kids — one from each year he’s been in education — who made an impact on him, or on whom he made an impact. They weren’t all straight-A students, but all learned or experienced something memorable.

That includes a guy from Miller’s early years as a shop teacher at Honey Creek. They crossed paths, again, recently.

Miller asked him, “So, what are you doing now?”

He answered, “I’m doing what you taught me — I’m a welder.”

Miller had a catch in his voice as he told that story. And that steady look on his face.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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