By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Unless you were lost in a personal fog during your school daze, you likely came away from those years with a non-faculty member who had a profound impact on your life.
He/she might have been a counselor, coach, teacher’s aide, a hall guard – or in Millie Miller’s case, school secretary and, more importantly, school “matriarch.”
For decades, Miller was a classic Yiddishe mama – and so much more – as the heart and soul of Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Hyde Park. All you had to know about Miller was that she still worked part-time at the school in the week before her recent death at age 96.
“She was a master at engaging people, at making people feel good and special,” said one of her three sons, Glenn Miller.
Millie was never a rabbi, a principal or even a rookie teacher. And yet every person, place or thing at Akiba-Schechter and its predecessor school was committed to memory by Miller.
“She knew Akiba better than some parents know their children,” said former principal Miriam Schiller. “She could rattle off the names of preschoolers who had attended decades ago, and she was as iconic in Hyde Park as skating on the Midway in winter. There was no question she couldn’t answer.”
Added her son: “She counseled kids with problems. Kids could go to her for anything. She gave dating advice. She told this one parent thinking about having a fourth child, that she would have liked a fourth but did not have one. Her sense was go for it. She was right and the kid subsequently born credited Millie for her life.”
While Miller had a steel-trap mind for people and details, those she touched absorbed their experiences with her. Thus stories about this soulful woman flow freely in the Akiba-Schechter community. And beyond.
Millie Miller was one of the last living examples of the kind of parent and community activist that made the South Shore Jewish community close-knit in the mid-20th century. The camaraderie meant the relationships established there have transferred unbroken across the decades and thousands of miles.
Chicago’s own pale of Jewish settlement stretched from Kenwood all the way south to 95th Street and beyond. The area combined the multi-generation family closeness of the old West Side with a more egalitarian mindset. Miller, her husband and three sons lived on the third floor of a family three-flat at 8009 S. Phillips. Miller traversed this era as a mother, leader and adviser with ease and grace.
“The South Side was warmer, more open,” said Glenn Miller. “You had money, or no money. You were Reform or Orthodox. Everybody got along.”
Chicago sportscaster Bruce Levine, a South Shore native who knew the Millers, said Millie symbolized his old neighborhood.
“Millie Miller was what South Shore was all about,” he said. “Passion for family and friends. Civic duty. Compassion and charity.”
Miller first learned about life working in her parents’ fruit store. She also helped look after six younger siblings, wrote letters to boost the morale of far-flung GIs in World War II, raised three sons to be their own men, ran a start-up Little League and made sure the stack of just-delivered challahs in the school office was properly labeled. Oh, and if she had to dash out of the office on a quick errand, she’d persuade a newly-starting teacher waiting for a meeting to answer the phone with “Shalom, Akiba-Schechter” in her place.
Miller is also survived by 14 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren – and so many others who did not have to be raised in her household to feel like that were part of her family.
Millie never lost the essence of her modest beginnings, born as Mildred Feldschreiber in 1921, with a commitment to people and Judaism from the start.
Father Samuel Feldschreiber established the first fruit store on Stony Island Avenue, later moving to 70th and Dorchester. Millie, his first child, was the apple of his eye, entrusted to run the cash box at age nine. Very soon afterward, she learned the art of empathy as the Great Depression ripped through society.
“There were an endless amount of people on credit or tabs,” Glenn Miller recalled. Millie watched her father, who spoke seven languages, work as the original people person in the family.
Millie Miller graduated from Parker High School, studied secretarial skills and worked at Goldblatt’s and Sears stores. She also became active in Junior Hadassah and ORT.
“Going thru her condo in Hyde Park, we found a handbook from the Young Judea Leadership Conference, maybe 1943,” Glenn Miller said. “It was a two-week conference on the East Coast. She took the train on her own to Brandeis University. A number of people signed her book. Two things stood out. One inscription said, ‘Good luck as a future Zionist leader.’ Another was describing her interest in people and endeavors, to ‘continue exactly who you are.’ What separated her was she was genuinely interested in your story. She knew everyone’s names, anniversaries, birthdays. To the end, I would refer to her for names and phone numbers.”
Miller further sharpened her people skills by penning letters to “a crazy number” of World War II GIs,” Glenn Miller recalled. With her gift of the written language and personality, she was constantly asked to write the morale-boosting communiques.
Through her Jewish organizational volunteering, she met Irving Miller, her future husband in Oct. 1945. His initial pitch for a date was rejected, but Irving was persistent. Eventually Millie buckled, the couple went to a hockey game for a first date, and were married in 1946.
Sons Jerry and Kenneth preceded Glenn into the family. All took divergent paths. Jerry is now an Orthodox rabbi in Israel. Kenneth became a journalist and public-relations specialist. Glenn established himself in the commodities industry. All benefited from her mothering.
“She was nurturing, supportive and engaged in real dialogue,” said Glenn Miller. “Conversations were not superficial. If something needed to be dealt with, we addressed challenges we were facing. She helped me through a very challenging time out of college. I started trading futures. The first year was very difficult. I was offered a job at a bank, but I ended up back on the floor, and traded for 27 years. She supported whatever we did.
“She could be stern and give you tough love. She had a strong intuitive sense. At home or at school, she gave people what they needed at the time, a pahtch on the tuchas or a hug.”
Levine experienced some of the motherly tactics in her extended community.
“Millie Miller was not your typical mom of the 1950s,” he said. “She loved her boys and treated them like men. She did that for all of us who were lucky enough to know her.”
While raising her sons, Miller found time to gather the organizational acumen that would eventually glue together the daily workings of Akiba-Schechter. A World War II veteran who went into the auto parts business in Blue Island, Irving Miller was active in the Neivelt Post of the Jewish War Veterans. Millie became the first president of the Ladies Auxiliary of the post, and then moved up to statewide president of 23 posts. Her boosting of veterans affairs spread to backing leukemia research and helping organize events at Hines Veterans Hospital. On top of that spree of activity, she became president of the Sisterhood of Agudas Achim Congregation while volunteering both in the Hebrew School and synagogue offices.
The Millers and seven other couples also founded the South Shore Little League. Harold Patinkin, entertainer Many Patinkin’s uncle, was among that group. While they did not produce any big-league stars down the line, the league did groom Levine to eventually become the baseball broadcast maven for more than 35 years on ESPN-1000 and now 670 The Score.
“Millie was also the secretary-treasurer for the Little League from 1959-61 when I was a player,” Levine said. “Her son Jerry and I played on the 1960 champions, the White Sox. We had a great team and a lot of high-energy kids. Millie would keep the official score of the games for league records. She always sat in the first row of the bleachers.
“We all loved Millie. She was a friendly, kind soul who gave a lot to our community. She was a person you never would forget. Even 58 years later, I can see her smile while filling out the scorecard to report information for the neighborhood newspaper. I got two doubles in one big win and Millie reported it to the paper. Seeing my name in print for the first time was the biggest kick of my young life. I kept the clipping for years.”
Miller was an educator without portfolio. But as her sons grew up, she went back to work full-time in the summer of 1970 as secretary of Akiba South Side Day School, founded in 1949. Two years later, as Jews were quickly fleeing the South Side amid racial change, Akiba merged with Solomon Schechter South Side School.
Miller quickly became a jack of all trades and master of them all at the school. In addition to answering the phones and bookkeeping, she purchased supplies and planned spaghetti dinners and fundraisers. She presided over sales at intermission at school concerts, plays and musicals.
As the resident Jewish mom, she put students at ease during their first days at school. She’d joke that she had four children – her three sons and Akiba-Schechter. The students did not soon forget. Miller was applauded, even drawing standing ovations, at graduation ceremonies.
“Whenever I wasn’t feeling well, I would go to the school office,” said Avi Engelhart, an Akiba student from 1999 to 2001. “Millie would always greet me with a smile and ask me what’s wrong. I would tell her I had a sore throat. Millie would always take my temperature and give me two lemon drops. Then, whenever I wanted candy, I would go to the school office. Millie would always greet me with a smile and ask me what’s wrong. I would tell her I had a sore throat. Millie would take my temperature and give me two lemon drops.
“Eventually she caught on to me. ’You’re not sick, go back to class,’ she would say. “’No, really, I have a sore throat,’ I replied, hoping for my candies. From then on, Millie stopped taking my temperature, but she would still always smile at me and give me two lemon drops.”
Miller would be the “good cop” when other students came in for disciplinary action.
“I remember the not-so-infrequent occasions when I would be called to the principal’s office for a little “consultation” with (a parade of school officials),” said Daniel Schneider, a 1982 alum who knew Miller since 1973.
“As I was waiting to go in, Millie would give me the sort of look my mother would: ‘I know you can do better, you just need to put your mind to it.’ That was more powerful than any punishment (the principal) could give me. I also have fond memories of how Millie helped improve the standard of living at Akiba, especially regarding food. Whether it was plain, barbecue or Hot Stuff potato chips, I could always count on a little help from Millie and (secretary) Rose to liven up my lunch bag. I also remember the Shabbat challah and Rosh Chodesh donuts that made the celebration of those special days something to look forward to.”
Miller also helped out her bosses in similar fashion. Former principal Schiller had never held that position previously and was understandably nervous 20 years ago when she took over at Akiba.
“Millie appointed herself my personal confidante and protector and took me under her wing,” Schiller said. “On spit and prayer—and a lot of good fortune—we made it through that first year together.
“Millie never stopped seeing herself as my confidante and protector. When I would have an especially rough day, Millie would listen to my woes and reassure me, in her mothering and wise way, that everything would be okay. Invariably, she was right. When Hoffman House (former elementary-school building) would flood and the Fire Department would threaten to close us, Millie would go about her business as though nothing was out of the ordinary, silently reminding us that this, too, would pass. She had the kind of wisdom that only comes from hard work, patience and love.
“Many times, it was this steadfastness—this quiet confidence of Millie’s—that I appreciated most. She was the calm in the storm, the eyes that saw the bigger picture.”
Eliezer Jones was the final head of school for whom Miller worked, starting earlier in 2017. Or was it the other way around?
“When I came to Akiba-Schechter to visit for the first time I was told I had to meet Millie,” Jones said. “I asked who Millie was and was told she is the school matriarch. I was also informed I wouldn’t get hired without her blessing. I introduced myself and Millie very politely said ‘hello’ followed by ‘What kind of Jewish name is Jones?’ After I explained the origins of my name, we discussed the history of the school, why I liked it and some of my vision for the future. I must have made a good impression because I got the job, although that was certainly not the last time I felt Millie was interviewing me.
“Millie was Akiba, and she protected it like the school matriarch she was. There was not a decision I made that she did not question. I don’t mean that she doubted my choices, but she wanted to know why I did what I did because she cared so deeply about our school. In fact, one of our last conversations was about a decision I made around development. I explained the decision, the thinking behind it and the vision it represented moving forward. She looked at me with a smirk I had become accustomed to and said, ‘You are a dreamer.’ I said, ‘Thank you, I take that as a compliment’ to which she replied ‘Good,’ because that is how I meant it.”
“When we informed our students of Millie’s passing, it was clear that she meant so much to so many people. To hear a room full of first- through eighth-grade students gasp at the news and to see tears among many of them, you knew Millie lived a full life.”
Said her son Glenn, “She achieved everything she wanted to achieve.”