Norm Miller: Portrait of a Rush-Henrietta Life Well Lived

  • During his first year as principal of Burger Junior High School in 1976, Norm Miller was introduced to the renowned Rochester artist, Stanley Gordon.

    Known at the time as one of the best portrait artists east of the Mississippi, Gordon was in the midst of a week-long stint as Norm Miller with his porttrait a visiting artist. As students attended their art class, Gordon painted in front of them, explaining the intricacies of his craft. To make a better connection with them, he asked Miller to volunteer as a model. For hours, the principal dutifully stood on a stepladder, holding a pose.

    Miller remembers the artist as easygoing and able to explain his work to anyone at a level they could understand. “He was a very gentle person,” he says. “He could relate to junior high school students better than many people.”

    Gordon painted many historical figures during his long career, and his services were in demand for decades. First Lady Rosalynn Carter once asked Gordon to paint a portrait of her husband, Jimmy Carter; the painting is displayed in the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta. Gordon estimated in a 2010 interview he sold more than 500,000 prints of his most well-known work, a portrait of Jesus. His depiction of John F. Kennedy is displayed in a Minnesota high school named after the president.

    “If you go back and look at all the famous people he has painted, it’s amazing,” Miller says. “I didn’t know that back then. About a month after he painted it, I called him and asked if he would sell it to me and he did.” With an interest in preserving Rush-Henrietta history, the district recently accepted Miller’s long-cherished oil painting into its archives. 

    It’s been 33 years since Miller retired from the Rush-Henrietta Central School District, but his memories of his experiences here remain vivid. Born two years after the Great Depression began, he credits his upbringing for his personal and professional success. Faith and perseverance are among the keys to his long life, says Miller, who as a child was recognized easily by his bright, red hair. 

    While growing up, Miller attended church with his family. He remembers the lessons he learned, including those regarding the importance of giving. “Each Sunday, I was given a nickel to put in the Sunday School offering,” he says. “The old church had wooden, sloped floors. We sat near the back and, more than once, the nickel would end up in front of the altar.”

    Miller began school years before Rush-Henrietta was formed. Like many of his peers, he began in the first grade, attending The old school building, now a post office class in the basement of the Rush Town Hall. He spent third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grades in a two-room annex behind what is now the Rush Post Office. He and his classmates moved to the former Rush High School, in the building where the Rush Post Office is located, for grades 7-10. 

    At 88, Miller’s memory remains sharp and he fondly recalls many people who taught him. “My teacher in first and second grades was Martha Hart,” he says. “She was a grandmotherly type person. She was one of the nicest teachers I ever had.”

    Miller finished his schooling at Monroe Academy, the one-time Henrietta high school formerly situated on the northeast corner of East Henrietta and Lehigh Station roads. While enrolled there, Miller was named captain of the basketball, baseball, and soccer teams. During his senior year, Miller volunteered to play a new position for his baseball team. “We didn’t have a catcher,” he recalls. “I was of the mindset that if I wanted to do it, I could do it.” That positive, can-do attitude has served him well throughout the years. 

    On many occasions, he played sports alongside his brother, John Miller, 89, who still lives in Henrietta. Another brother, the late Gordon Miller, once served as a custodian in the district. An old R-H baseball team

    Miller was a member of the Rush-Henrietta Class of 1949, the second class to graduate from the newly formed district. It was created in 1946 after residents from Henrietta and Rush approved a plan to centralize dozens of smaller schools. At the time the district formed, there were more students living in Rush than in Henrietta.

    While attending high school, Miller expressed interest in becoming a physical education teacher. He was talked out of that idea by Dr. John Parker, for whom the district’s Parker Administration Building is named. Miller demonstrates a healthy respect for his former assistant principal and coach even today.

    “Dr. Parker was fiery,” he says, with a laugh. “To illustrate, one time we were on the soccer field. He was our coach and was teaching us how to kick the ball. John Parker always wore loafers. When he kicked the ball, his loafers went farther than the ball did. He got a little upset about that.”  

    Yet, Miller says, Parker was wise and generous with his advice. “We didn’t have guidance counselors back then, but Dr. Parker served as my mentor,” he says. “He encouraged me to become an elementary teacher.” Taking the suggestion to heart, Miller attended the State University of New York at Geneseo from 1949 to 1953, and received a permanent certificate to teach grades K-9. 

    Not long after graduating from college, Miller was drafted by the U.S. Army and served stateside during the Korean War. He sustained a knee injury while playing volleyball on a rare day off from military duties, ending his plans to become a paratrooper.  “I did a lot of growing when I was in the Army,” he says, with a chuckle. “You kind of have to.”

    In 1955, Miller returned home having attained the rank of corporal and secured a job teaching with the Wheatland-Chili Central School District. Yet, he dreamed of working for his alma mater and was hired in 1956 as a science teacher at Rush-Henrietta Central School, now known as Roth Junior High School. 

    When Webster Junior High School opened on Lehigh Station Road in 1961, Miller transferred there. He became chair of the math and science departments and served as assistant principal at the grades 6-8 school, which he estimates had 900 students. 

    Miller later became principal of Roth, which he led from 1970 to 1975. At that time, Roth was a K-9 building, although it had transitioned to a 7-8 building by the time Miller departed for Burger Junior High School. He served as Burger principal from 1976 to 1986. 

    The father of four Rush-Henrietta graduates, Miller has been married to his wife, Louise, for 65 years. The couple have seven great-grandchildren, including Ethan and Rhys, who attend Leary Elementary School. His family roots in the community date to the 1860s, when his great-great grandmother, Henrietta Bauer Behnk, settled in Rush after leaving her native Germany. Yes, the Rush woman was named Henrietta!

    Miller lived most of his life in Rush and served the community in many ways. He was a member of the Rush Town Board from 1964 to 1968. He also held leadership positions at Rush United Methodist Church and served as a leader with Boy Scouts of America.

    Today, Norm and Louise Miller live at The Legacy on Erie Station Road in Henrietta, a few miles from where they raised their children and made a life together. Seven years ago, Kellianne Williams, their granddaughter, bought the East Henrietta Road house in which they lived for nearly five decades. This Thanksgiving, 30 family members will reunite at that house to have dinner and give thanks.

    The district is grateful to Norm Miller for sharing his quintessential Rush-Henrietta story.

    - Written by Travis Anderson, Sr. Information  Specialist, November 2019