I know a few people who recount stories of college professors who really had an impact on them but it seems these stories are becoming more rare. I was one of those fortunate few.
Flashback to me as a teenager in high school..years before I was running into burning buildings and driving drunk students to the ER, I had just begun training in the warrior martial art that I continue to practice today and was like a sponge soaking up anything to do with Asian spiritual traditions.
As a child I had wanted to be a Catholic Priest and then started looking eastward in my teens before finally settling in on enjoying the common threads at the core of all traditions before man began to shape them.
I was full of way too much energy, too many stupid questions, and not much life experience and drove everyone around me nuts.
I had decided that I must go to Miami University in Ohio in order to further my martial arts training with my teacher there and while visiting the school, of course had to meet the professor of Asian traditions.
In I walked to the office of religion and looking for any available professor to chat with. There behind the desk in an office full of thousands of books sat a white bearded laid back man who looked like the perfect quintessential scholar. He spoke with eloquence in a tone reminiscent of the ivy league scholars of old. He had time to speak with me and took an interest in my passion and all of my teenage energy. His name was Dr. Alan Miller and I remember him telling me his dream was to retire in a library.
Over my years in college, I took every class he taught but beyond that, whenever I found myself lonely or misunderstood, I would stop into his office and minutes of conversation would turn into hours to where he would realize his next class started 15 minutes ago. He was always available, always tolerant, and always willing to listen to whatever was on my mind and share his own wisdom from his scholarly path.
But perhaps the most notable thing about Dr. Miller and the one thing I continue to appreciate to this day above all else is that he got me. If I needed to take 10 days off from classes to spend time with one of my teachers, he made room for that. When I either refused or was simply unable to write papers in the correct academic manner with appropriate footnotes and references because I was quoting my teachers, my experience, and sometimes couldn’t even remember whom had given me an insight I was using in a paper, he allowed me to get away with it. He once even told me I would probably have issues with other professors but he liked my style because I “did it well.”
And have issues with other professors I did.
Where other professors tried to make me conform, he didn’t. And where I judged other professors for being too academic and disconnected, I respected Dr. Miller because he was a non judgmental scholar of the highest order who could discuss any topic in any subject from religion to history to engineering .
At one point a 6 page paper he assigned us turned into a 32 page paper for me because it was of a topic of my choice. And I sure chose…at the expense of all my other classes!
At some point during my junior year, Dr. Miller told me he was retiring and moving to washington state. I remember being very sad however he also told me that the Department of Religion had told him he could teach a class on any topic at all and he chose “Spiritual Autobiography.” The class began with 6 students and involved reading autobiographies from different religious traditions around the world.
In his honor, the class continued to meet every Tues and thurs at 11am without him. When the religion department attempted to assign a grad student to monitor the class because “DJ Siclari is not a suitable proctor,” we just took our meetings off campus…meeting at ponds, lakes, restaurants, fields etc.
Dr. Miller returned from surgery with a positive outcome and joined the class. But the dynamic was different as he no longer felt like a professor but seemed more like one of us. We were all working on our spiritual autobiographies and he was too. Finally all 7 of us, including Dr. Miller, shared our stories with each other. At the end of the semester, we took him out for Indian Food and gave him a copy of all of our biographies compiled into a bound work complete with pictures from the class for him to remember the last class he was to teach.
I was able to visit him and his wife several years later in Washington State and visited him again last week. Though it was a short drive from the ferry station to his house, when he met my sister and I at the top of his driveway, he was engrossed in a book. I realized he is living his dream as I walked through the stacks and stacks of books in his small cabin and asked him if he knew how many he had.
His answer “About 7000.”
In an age of e-books, kindle, and audiobooks you can download on your phone, I’d say he has indeed retired in a library.
It was wonderful to reconnect with an old friend and professor who was there for me when I felt there was no one else I could talk to about my real interests. For Alan Miller religion was his rebellion…he was pursuing a degree in engineering and switched to religion because it was out of the norm. He walked the path and continues to walk the path of an academic scholar very well and continues to be full of gems of knowledge and insight when I see him.
We reminisced at his house and over Thai Food. He updated me on his health and let me know he is loving teaching a class for adults and we discussed how few of the undergrads who came through his classes at Miami really had any interest in the material and he was feeling more and more generationally removed coupled with the fact that many of the students were Christian Missionairies planning to go to Asia to proselytize their beliefs.
Our time together came and went far too fast and before we knew it, my sister and I were on the ferry back to Seattle.
He and his wife recently acquired a puppy named “Mujo’ in honor or impermanence which as fate would have it ended up being a perfectly fitting name as Mujo destroys everything he comes into contact with!