NEW PALTZ — Like many of the students who attend SUNY New Paltz, Clara Pankow Miller was one of the top 10 students in her high school graduating class. What is unique about this music major looking forward to graduating from the university with the Class of 2002 is that she graduated from high school 75 years ago.
The 92-year-old Wappingers Falls resident said she became interested in New Paltz because her granddaughter Tina is a sociology student at the university. Miller has been a musician all her life, and although she took some college courses for her own enjoyment as well as many private music lessons over the years, this is her first experience with pursuing a college degree. “Since my brother was enrolled in a theological seminary [when I graduated from high school], my father could not afford a second college tuition with the paltry salary ministers received in those days,” she stated.
Miller’s faculty advisor and the chair of the SUNY New Paltz Music Department, Lee Pritchard, feels that although she is not a “typical” college student, Miller is in good company at New Paltz. “The university as a whole has become known for its diversity and non-traditional students,” he said. “I’m always interested in students bucking the traditional pattern because I think educationally it’s an important mission Clara doesn’t need to do this for any reason whatsoever except to do something she was prevented from doing for one reason or another, and what is so wonderful is that she has the support of two generations under her.”
In the fall of 1998, Miller completed the Center for Continuing & Professional Education’s “Assessment of Non-Traditional Learning” course — a special educational vehicle instituted by SUNY New Paltz in 1979 to help adult learners gain college-level credit for life and work experience. She received credits for her experiences in the areas of music, theatre, foreign languages and English.
“I’d have been foolish to quit there,” said Miller, who has since earned additional credits, working on both her music program and general education requirements. Miller has been accepted by SUNY New Paltz as an official degree-seeking student. This fall, she is enrolled in the classes “Music of the Middle Ages” and “Introduction to Sociology.” With 100 credits to date, she is considered to be a member of the senior class.
The Non-Traditional Learning Program requires students to prepare a portfolio containing a short paper about personal life circumstances, letters of recommendation, clippings from newspapers and other articles which confirm their experiences.
“She had tons — an unusually large amount of materials to choose from,” said Sarah Lawton, the university’s non-traditional learning coordinator. “One of the great things about the Non-Traditional Learning Program is there are so many people who are quite outstanding; they have remarkable backgrounds and accomplishments they are able to bring to it. But almost no one who comes into the program has 75 years of professional experience.”
Miller’s instruments include the piano, organ, harpsichord and recorder. She first began performing in public as an organist in the Emmaus Lutheran Church in Buffalo, N.Y., where her father, also a musician, was pastor. Through the years, she performed regularly on the piano and organ for numerous churches and publicly all over the Buffalo area, organized five vocal choirs and two handbell choirs, maintained membership with many professional organizations, and succeeded in many professional positions, including full-time music director at the Grace Lutheran Church in Glen Ellen, Ill., and the administrative assistant to the head of the Music Department at Concordia Teachers College in Illinois.
For many years, Miller gave private music lessons and though many of her students have gone on to professional careers, one in particular stands out in her memories. For 11 years beginning when he was seven years old, Buffalo Bob of “Howdy Doody” fame took private lessons with Miller. Growing up, he sang in her church choir and sometimes substituted for her at the church organ. He later named his clown, “Clarabelle,” after her.
“He was terrific,” she said. “He died a year ago, and he was only 80 and here I am. Life is funny.”
Miller’s father emigrated from Strasbourg, Alsace-Lorraine, France, and the primary language of her household was German, so New Paltz’s foreign languages requirement posed no obstacle for her.
Her theatre and English credits were allotted based on her completion of summer drama courses and a correspondence course on the Bible, as well as experiences like directing community productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operas and writing pageants to be performed in various churches at Christmas and Easter.
Miller has a son and daughter, a retired school principal and an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, respectively; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. She performs regularly at the Christian Science Church in Poughkeepsie, and is a 50-year member of the American Guild of Organists.
Note to editors: Photographs of Clara Pankow Miller may be downloaded from the SUNY New Paltz web site at http://www.newpaltz.edu/news/images/miller.html.