WKU’s longest serving professor reflects on her career

English Professor Mary Ellen Miller has been with WKU for 54 years and is now in transitional retirement. She is continuing to teach but is using her newly found free time to write a book of poetry. Miller said she intends to continue teaching as long as she can or “as long as they’ll have me.” 

Bryson Keltner

Half a Century

In Cherry Hall room 130, piles of books of different sizes and colors cover the floor; some sit strategically in cabinets, and the rest lie sideways like dominoes on the many shelves lining one wall. Alongside the remaining clutter including three cans of hairspray, a mirror, pictures of family and students, vases, a coffeepot, a Hillary Clinton-adorned clock, a thermometer that reads 70 degrees and a rack of purses is Mary Ellen Miller, facing the window overlooking College Heights Boulevard and chuckling.

For over 50 years, Cherry Hall has been her home on the Hill, where she’s graded poems, read American literature essays and met with students to discuss their lives.

“My life?” she said. “You want to know about my life? That’s a biggie.”

Mary Ellen recently received a new honor: WKU’s first University Poet Laureate, a title created specifically for her. 

Only a select few colleagues have known about the title until the university officially bestowed it on Miller earlier this week. Rob Hale, the English department head, shares his excitement.

“I feel very fortunate to get to work with her,” he said.

Hale has an ongoing banter-match with Mary Ellen. Recently at a senior awards ceremony, he called her a terrible person, but then smiled and shared a kind word before he read one of her poems to begin the celebration. 

“Professor Miller has such a dry, quick wit, and I relish opportunities to banter with her,” Hale said. “Of course, she works diligently to improve the life and work of students and colleagues, but she does so with a sense of fun.”

In addition to her new title, Mary Ellen Miller holds the title of oldest professor at WKU–although she often dodges the question of her age. She has served as a faculty regent, published several works of poetry, co-founded the Center for Robert Penn Warren Studies, helped establish a writing contest in honor of her late husband, wrote and produced a film and gained the admiration from many WKU students for half a century. She’s been teaching for 54 years, and although she will be lightening her course load to focus on her writing, she has no intention of stopping anytime soon.

Mary Ellen grew up on a farm in Willard, a small community located in Carter County in northeastern Kentucky. She recalls helping her family raise tobacco and corn as cash crops but also growing a garden that provided just about every vegetable her family consumed. As a young girl, she was only allowed to plant tobacco plants by hand, but she said it made her feel important to help the family prosper.

Her mother was a community activist, and her father was a Methodist preacher. She thoroughly learned about the Bible and religion. Although she says she had not always gone to church, she taught her children about the Bible.

“I just thought they were good stories, and I certainly thought they should know? Know something about the major religion in their culture,” she said. In doing so, she made her mother proud.

She recalls one night when her children were staying with her mother when they were young. Just as her mother would do for Mary Ellen when she was a child, she put the children to bed with a story expecting them to request Goldilocks and the three bears or Little Red Ridinghood. Instead the children replied, “Noah’s ark with all of those animals, or Jacob with his colorful coat!”

“She was thunderstruck,” Mary Ellen said. “She didn’t know that you could teach children about religion without taking them to church.”

The next morning, her mother was cooking breakfast when she asked Mary Ellen, “How did the children know those Bible stories?”

“I taught them, mother, just like you taught me,” Mary Ellen said. “I swear, she had to turn her face away. She didn’t want me to see the grin that passed over her and the absolute delight. But I saw. I thought I did one thing that thrilled my mother, and I wasn’t even thinking about it when I did it.”

Although she may not have completely stuck to her parents’ religious roots, Mary Ellen was proud to teach them to her kids, and she still keeps a green Gideon Bible among the stacks of books cluttering her office.

After leaving her parents, she went to Berea College, where she graduated with an English degree and took intensive German classes. So much was her love for German that she became a teacher’s aide in one of her German classes.

After class had dismissed one day, one student stayed behind after the others had gone.

He asked Mary Ellen to lunch, and took her to the cafeteria. That student was a young Jim Wayne Miller, described as “brilliant” by Mary Ellen, and was on his way to becoming one of Kentucky’s most well-known writers. They married in 1958.

Miller describes the beginning of her married life as difficult but fulfilling. She taught high school in Indiana for a while but moved into her first apartment with Jim in Elizabethtown.

“It wasn’t exactly elegant or plush, but it was comfortable,” she said.

They began teaching at Fort Knox and Jim remained to teach there while Mary Ellen took classes at the University of Kentucky to receive her Master’s degree.

She taught at Vanderbilt for three years while Jim received his Doctorate before moving to WKU in 1963. They both began teaching on the Hill while Mary Ellen continued to take classes for a Doctorate at Vanderbilt. She did all of her doctorate coursework but never received her degree because she didn’t do a dissertation. She said being a mother came first.

Mary Ellen had three children. Her oldest is James, but Mary Ellen calls him Jim, after his father. He was born in 1962. James became a musician and now lives with Mary Ellen. She said although he practices often, he is always there to help her.

“I never have to lift anything heavier than my purse,” she said. “He does the yard work and cleans the gutters and stuff like that. His girlfriend also cooks and helps with laundry. I don’t know what I’d do without them.”

Her other son, Frederick, was born in 1963. He has an art degree from Murray State University, and he is now an artist, photographer and filmmaker.

“He does just about everything,” Mary Ellen said. Fredrick and his wife currently live in Louisville.

Mary Ellen’s daughter Ruth was born in 1966. She is also an artist, and she went to school mostly in California. Ruth did her doctorate work at the University of Sana Barbara.

“She finished it all except the dissertation,” Mary Ellen said. “So she takes after me, I guess.”

She’s a college teacher as well.

On any given day, Mary Ellen would wake up, make the kids breakfast and get ready. She would come to school with Jim, and they would have coffee with friends at the Faculty House. Then, they went about their daily teaching schedules. She picked up the kids and Jim would start working on whatever he was writing. Mary Ellen would then go into the kitchen and cook dinner. She’d do the laundry. She’d bathe each kid and told them stories to put them to bed. The next day, she would repeat the same routine.

A friend asked her, how she did all of that while going to school. She replied that it was necessary. “I had four children to raise,” she said.

The woman asked, “I thought you had three children.”

Mary Ellen replied, “I was counting their father.

Her husband Jim passed away 20 years ago.

“Jim was a terrific man,” she said. “I loved him with all my heart. He was very talented and brilliant man, but a good housekeeper, he was not. He didn’t really grow up. It was hard. It was tough, but I wouldn’t take anything for having done it.”

Mary Ellen’s current days begin early. She gets to her office at about 6:30 in the morning because she loves the early morning hours. She’s not required to be at school every day, but she is there on her non-class days to get other work done.

“We have so many things to do in the line outside of teaching,” she said. “I take home as little work as possible. I try to take two days a week to write poetry, but I rarely get two full days to do that. I read my journals. I read new books I’m interested in. I go out for dinner quite a bit with friends.”

Since Mary Ellen has been teaching at WKU for over half a century, she has seen more changes within the university than anyone. She said it was most interesting to be part of it during the 1960’s because she could see the college transforming as civil reforms began to arise.

“Things were just beginning to roll,” Mary Ellen said. “They didn’t always have a good atmosphere to do it in, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to do it. So I guess the 60’s stick out in my mind as a really passionate time.”

Aside from that, Miller pointed out the university has “become a lot more liberal.”

“We have a lot more social organizations. We have a lot more activism on behalf of minorities – ethnic, international, gay and beyond. That’s one of the most positive changes I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

Since Miller has been successful in teaching all of these years, she has developed an unwavering teaching philosophy.

“I prefer to teach with respect for what students already know–what they have acquired. I understand that some of them are better-prepared from their high schools. I understand that some of them are just downright brainier. But my philosophy is to treat them with respect, and I know they’ll treat me with respect.

“I also know when to bend a little bit and when to give a little extra attention to some things. I like to feel at home with them and I kind of think of them as my own children. I like to remember myself at that age, and remember some of the hardships I know they go through – not just financial, but family problems and deaths and so on.”

Linsay Edelen, a senior from Elizabethtown, took Mary Ellen’s intermediate poetry writing and introduction to creative writing courses. She said Mary Ellen not only helped her become a much better writer, but she helped her feel better about herself.

“For me, Mary Ellen Miller was always about helping me improve and encouraging me, even when I didn’t feel like I measured up to those around me,” Edelen said.

She recalls writing a one-act play in Mary Ellen’s class. She performed it and several other students’ works as Mary Ellen watched with a subtle smile and raised pen. 

“For some reason, she always thought I should be an actress,” she said. “But she made me feel good about being me.”

Miller also shared the one thing she hopes to establish in all of her classes. She wants to encourage students to read a lot.

“Read only good stuff, and read a lot of it,” she said. “You’ll never be lonely if you read good literature. You’ll always have something to do.”

She scribbles on a yellow legal pad as she speaks about her current work. She’s compiling a collection of her poetry for a book. When asked when she’s expecting to release the book, she replied, “Last year. I don’t know. I’m not as far along on it as I’d like to be.” 

Mary Ellen has no regrets regarding doing what she could do with what she had.

“I had a good brain; we all do,” she said. “I had good English teachers, and I loved to read, and my parents encouraged me to read. We would have gone without food to have books in the house. So I can’t regret that.”

She said she could have been kinder in some circumstances. 

“Some people would probably say, ‘Good God, aren’t you ashamed of such and such?’” she said, but she is neither ashamed nor regretful.

She described herself as having “sticktoitiveness.”

“I’m pretty good at hanging in when I need to and still going on with what I have to do,” she said. “You simply don’t give up until you absolutely have to.”

Reporter Bryson Keltner can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected]