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Classroom to honor memory of beloved history teacher

by Luanne Williams

Education majors and the professors who stand before them should get an extra dose of inspiration as they read the plaque next to the door of Room 113 in Wingate’s Hayes Classroom Building. At least that’s the hope of Jerry McGee, University president emeritus, who recently dedicated the room in memory of his 11th-grade history teacher.

“The message today is not only to future teachers who will come here and see this plaque, but I hope it says to our professors that their contributions are too important to be forgotten,” McGee said during the dedication. “Jimmy Miller has been gone a long time now, but there is indeed a generation of very grateful and very successful men and women who live in this region who benefited from his teaching and mentorship.”

The late Miller, who taught at Rockingham High School from 1957 to 1972 and at Richmond Technical Institution from 1972 to 1977, was “widely recognized as one of the most demanding and admired teachers” at the high school, according to McGee, who shared two anecdotes to illustrate the educator’s high expectations of his students.

McGee remembered Miller’s reaction to his grade of 98 on a midterm exam, a score that pleased McGee but was disappointing to his mentor.

“You are my best student; I expected more,” Miller told him. He said the words inspired him to deliver a perfect score on the final exam, which he was not even required to take.

Many years later, Wingate’s ninth president unexpectedly had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with his former teacher, who McGee said asked him “10,000 questions” about his career. The conversation illustrated how Miller often saw great potential in students before the students themselves had an inkling of what they could become.

“You have been there seven years now,” McGee recalls Miller asking him. “What’s been the biggest surprise about being a college president?”

McGee said that, after some thought, he told Miller, “The fact that I never dreamed that I, a mill-hill kid, would ever have lunch with the Dalai Lama, never dreamed that I would have a cup of tea with Margaret Thatcher, never dreamed that I would sit and talk with Henry Kissinger. Those things have blown my mind. I never thought that they would happen to me.”

He said Miller responded matter-of-factly: “Really? I would have expected you to do that.”

Miller’s interest and investment in his students was always apparent to McGee but became even more so when a recent informal Facebook poll asked Rockingham High alumni who their favorite teacher was. About 200 responded, with at least 40 pointing to Miller, adding their thoughts about the beloved educator:

“Great teacher. Great man. Great Tar Heel.”

“A good teacher and a very kind man.”

“A teacher who opened students’ eyes to the truth of U.S. history.”

“He always left me with a piece of good advice.”

McGee said his favorite comment was this one:

“I loved Mr. Miller, and I always felt he loved us too.”

“What else can you ask for in a teacher?” McGee said.

Miller’s daughter and son-in-law, Liz and Vic Graham, were on hand for the dedication.

Wingate University President Rhett Brown helped set the scene for the event, describing the University’s recent adoption of a mentorship medallion presented during baccalaureate to employees nominated by graduates.

“Based on what Dr. McGee has told me about Mr. Miller, your dad would have had thousands of these,” he told Graham.

This is the second time that McGee has asked that one of his donations to the University be commemorated by naming a room in memory of a teacher who greatly influenced his life. In 2015, a classroom was named for Mamie Monroe, McGee’s first-grade teacher at Roberdell Elementary School. Monroe taught for 45 years in Richmond County. McGee was a member of her final class.

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