Students, faculty remember caring mentor

Ask any question to James Miller, and even if he didn’t know the answer immediately, a few days later you’d get a response.

“Sometimes I’d come to him with questions that didn’t have to do with his subject, but he would go out of his way to look up the answers for you,” said Peter Martin, a junior.

Anne Lehman, a senior, mentioned an instance when Miller scared her by entering the room in the science building where she was studying. He had come to get a soda out of the fridge but stayed a while to talk with her about the subject she was looking at. Ten minutes after he left, Lehman was startled by another noise.

“He had come back because he had a little tidbit of information to add about what I was studying earlier and wanted to share it with me,” Lehman said.

Miller liked to mentor students and engage them in research inquiry. He was mentoring around 10 student researchers this semester, which was publicly acknowledged to be more students than the other science professors at the biology alumni luncheon on Saturday.

“His priority was engaging students and that’s why we’re so lucky to have had him,” said Ryan Sensenig, professor of biological science.

Sensenig said that Miller also had a gift of getting to know people, and probably knew more students who entered the science building than other professors.

“He had a unique combination of gifts,”  Sensenig said. “He was someone who thought in spreadsheets and yet also showed people that he cared for them emotionally.”

One thing that many students commented on was how Miller managed to keep up with so many students and their activities. He would attend softball, tennis and other athletic events, and would congratulate students after their games.

“He loved interaction with people and having other people around doing scientific research,” said Michael Fecher, a senior. “He enjoyed what he did and the people he worked with…He was considerate and always wanted to know what was going on in your life and no matter what, would acknowledge your presence.”

Beyond students, Miller also cared for professors. Andy Ammons, biology professor, said that Miller was both a friend and mentor who became a father figure for him.

“He welcomed me into his lab and was not territorial,” said Ammons. “He accepted me and helped me.”

Miller’s career as a professor at Goshen College began immediately after earning his Ph.D in medical biochemistry from Ohio State University, where he attended after getting his undergraduate degree at Bluffton University.

He came to Goshen to teach biology, specifically higher-level classes geared towards pre-medical and nursing students. Vicky Kirkton, director of the undergraduate nursing program, calculated that Miller taught around 839 nursing students.

Goshen College was the only place Miller worked in the 31 years since his graduation. He dedicated himself to helping students going into the health fields and worked hard to encourage each of them.

Although Miller was caring, he was far from easy in his classes. Kirkton said that he would “[allow students] to retake the final if he thought there was a chance they could do well and pass the course.”

“He did not make those second chance decisions very quickly, pondering the pros and cons of such a decision and consulting with me,” Kirkton said.

To alleviate stress of the complex subjects in his classes, Miller brought jokes to class. He would take breaks from the topic and bring up jokes, often corny ones, and then relate them back to the subject.

“An example of a typical Dr. Miller joke and transition would be: ‘What’s black and white, black and white, black and white and green. Three skunks chasing a pickle. Speaking of things that are green, the gall bladder is green,'” said Laura Krabill, a senior. “And tada, Dr. Miller successfully transitioned into discussing the gall bladder. It was usually that transition sentence that really made me laugh.”

Outside of the classroom, Miller was as interested in his family as he was his students. Clara Sears, a senior, recalled a conversation with Miller on Thursday when he was excited about his daughter’s party and the new phase of life she was entering.

President Jim Brenneman and Ammons both noticed Miller’s care for his family.

“Us band parents, we’re kind of intense,” said Brenneman, whose child was in Goshen High School marching band with Miller’s children. “We like to go to all the performances so I got to know Jim and Linda through that.”

Ammons said he saw that Miller was a strong family man when he visited Miller’s house and observed the relationship Miller had with his kids.

Miller displayed a remarkable ability to care about the people in his life and the work that he did.

“In 31 years, he has left an amazing legacy,” Brenneman said. “Around the world are students working in health professions who carry with them in their soul a bit of Jim Miller.”

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Written by Sara Alvarez

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