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Pat Miller has the voice of an angel, but when the longtime vocal instructor spoke of her upcoming retirement, that smooth, vibrant voice cracked.
After nearly 40 years spent teaching at Elgin Public, Pope John and now at Neligh-Oakdale, Miller plans to retire at the end of the school year — just in time to become a first-time grandmother.
“You know, life’s too short to spend it all working. I don’t want that that baby to grow up and not know me, so I’m going to go,” she said while wiping a tear. “But I’m going to miss these kids.”
And these kids will miss her. Praise, memories and congratulations flooded social media when the news of her retirement broke last Monday during the Neligh-Oakdale Board of Education meeting.
Miller said she planned to teach another year but made the “spontaneous decision” just weeks ago and said “it’s time.” Her daughter Katie is a pastor in Omaha while daughter Amanda is a composer and instructor at Oklahoma City University. Amanda and her husband, Blake, are expecting their first child.
Although Miller called the decision to retire spontaneous, she joked that band teacher Nate Metschke — whom she joined at Neligh-Oakdale seven years ago — knew before she that this would be her last year.
“I knew once Amanda was pregnant that Pat would retire,” Metschke said. “And good for her. She deserves this. You know, I always joke that I’m in my seventh year of student teaching with her. She’s so knowledgeable about choirs and has taught me a lot in the seven years we’ve worked together.”
Miller calls music, “the family business.” Her father sang in their church choir until he was 86 and still sings along to familiar tunes at age 95. Two of her three brothers are music teachers. A niece and nephew both teach music.
Miller began her teaching career in the fall of 1975 in Elgin. Among those first students was Steve Kuester, who now has several grandchildren in Miller’s classes.
It was his senior year, and Kuester said Miller was the reason he fell in love with singing. Part of both choir and show choir, Kuester said he even sewed his own show choir shirt in home economics. Kuester hailed from an athletic family, but Miller recognized his singing talent and encouraged him to perform a solo.
“To this day, I still regret not getting up and doing that solo,” he said. “I wish I would have done it. I still sing in church and really enjoy it, but I don’t perform. I really regret not doing that solo.”
Miller spent the first six years of her career in Elgin before taking a six-year hiatus “to have my babies” with her husband, Jim. Even as a young teacher, Kuester said Miller brought discipline to the classroom.
“She was very passionate about music and she had discipline,” he said. “She really wanted kids to excel in the fine arts. She had the drive and was easy to get along with. She could really instill what she wanted to get across.”
After six years away from teaching, Pope John Central Catholic lured Miller back to the classroom. There, her stock as a vocal instructor skyrocketed as countless students became all-state singers and her musicals drew rave reviews and an audience from across Northeast Nebraska.
Her musicals became instant classics. A family affair, Jim, whom Miller said liked to stay behind the scenes, helped construct the set. And their daughters became choreographers, although they both attended Elgin Public School.
“I’ve directed 19 musicals but have never been in a single one,” Miller said with a laugh. “Musicals are probably what ended it for me. They stressed me out to the max.”
The musicals also led to a friendship with Metschke, who joined Miller as part of the band accompanying her performers. When Miller decided to retire from Pope John in 2011, it didn’t take long for Metschke to pick up the phone and tell her about a position opening at Neligh-Oakdale.
Miller had no intention of teaching, other than her private piano lessons. She was beginning the three-year Education For Lay Ministry program, which she said gave her the courage to retire from teaching.
Still, Metschke persisted. Finally, he found the right incentive — the position offered insurance.
“That is literally the reason,” she said with a laugh. “Plus, I always wanted to just teach elementary. I really believe that kids can learn to sing on pitch and develop a sense of rhythm as little kids. If you miss that, it’s really hard to pick that up. I really focus on getting kids on pitch.”
Metschke said Miller immediately made an impact at Neligh-Oakdale, especially with the Christmas programs. The two teachers implemented a scheme that included both elementary and high school and still lasted only about 70 minutes, rather than two separate nights.
They created a seamless schedule that alternated vocal performances on stage and then with the band and drumline on the floor, leaving no dead time in between. The schedule kept the show moving, and more importantly, allowed the students to watch one another perform.
“That first year, it was the talk of the town,” Metschke said. “People couldn’t stop talking about how good the program was.”
Although performances were important to Miller, she eventually cut the spring concert in order to dedicate for more time to teaching. With two 25-minute classes per week with the students, Miller said they were learning eight songs all year for the programs and missing out on music education.
“For me, music is a very important part of school curriculum because there’s so much I get to touch on that classroom teachers who are trying to meet standards don’t always get to do,” said Miller. “I feel like I teach a lot of culture, history, vocabulary. We go beyond notes and rhythm.”
March is Music In Schools month, a time for Miller to showcase her program, which includes a semester of studying composers, including their music and place in history. She now teaches elementary students to play ukuleles and boomwhackers. Students rave about ukuleles and her fifth- and sixth-graders can smoothly transition from one chord to another.
The love for her students is almost radiant as Miller speaks of “her kids.” Leaving the classroom will be hard, but she isn’t leaving teaching completely. Miller directs her church choir at her lifelong Peace United Church of Christ in Tilden. She’s been asked to teach them to play the ukulele as well.
And, of course, Miller plans to continue her piano lessons. She’s remodeling her home and “building on where the piano will live.”
Miller’s voice cracks again as she talks about the changes in her life. The baby, the remodel, and, of course, her husband, Jim, who succumbed to cancer nearly two years ago.
“They said don’t change anything for a year, and I didn’t. But now I’m changing everything,” she said. “Year two will be in May, and it feels like everything has changed.”
While Miller will spend time keeping her home remodel on track, she also plans to travel. Santa Fe has been on her bucket list for almost 20 years. “Maybe a trip to Europe this fall,” she said.
Miller hopes for lots of trips to Oklahoma City to see her first grandchild. But she will return home, the one constant in her life. “I told Jim I wouldn’t stay on the farm, and now I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” she said.
Life is changing, Miller said, and now is the time for her to change, too. Just like that six-year hiatus when she had babies, it’s time for “family before career.” But this isn’t like the last retirement, Miller said. She’s not leaving burned out. She’s leaving at the top of her game.
“To go out and still like what I do and still try to create new stuff and enjoy every day, that’s the time to quit,” she said. “The last time, I was done. This time, if it weren’t for other factors, I could keep going and keep doing it. I get to play with kids and make music. How is that not the best thing you can do?”