For decades, students in the Saginaw schools looked forward to the visits of “the music teacher.” And no wonder. She was a petite, bubbly brunette whose enthusiasm for music was contagious. Rhea Miller was born in 1897 to Dennis and Mary Miller, a dairy farm family in Eaton Rapids, Michigan. Shortly after her birth, her parents developed a very successful ice cream business, sold by twenty-two Miller stores as well as 200 independent dealers, Miller Ice Cream was known for its novelty flavors including dill pickle.
After graduating in 1917 from Albion College, Rhea took a position in Metamora, Illinois, teaching high school algebra, French, Latin and—what would later become the focus of her career, music. She had three years as supervisor of music in Marshall, Minnesota, before coming to Saginaw where she spent forty years as music supervisor and then director of music education. She also earned an advanced degree in music from the University of Michigan.
Like most other unmarried female teachers, at the time, she rented a small studio in a large, converted Victorian home at 616 S. Weadock on Saginaw’s east side. The daughter of her landlord, Kay Allington Shenk, remembered Rhea as “fun to be with,” a phrase often used to describe her.
At one event, Rhea and fellow teacher Naomi Cook surprised arriving guests with an impromptu serenade. Kay also recalled that Rhea was always smartly dressed. She was known for her impeccable taste and a large closet of beautiful clothes.
In addition to her classroom instruction, Rhea directed the Arthur Hill High School Glee Club and was instrumental in the development of a string program in the school’s city-wide Sunday afternoon concerts for young violinists and their parents. These were arranged to encourage interest in orchestral music.
She made it possible for all elementary students to attend concerts at the old auditorium featuring the Detroit, Cleveland and Minneapolis symphonies. She also engaged nationally-known choral conductors to appear at the annual Junior-Senior choral festivals.
Rhea’s influence was felt beyond the schools. She was a member of the Tuesday Musicale and served two terms as president of the Community Concert Association.
Statewide, she was recognized as an authority in musical education. In 1988, Saginaw Valley State University awarded her an honorary doctor of music degree and, some time later, its Distinguished Service Medallion, partly for her financial scholarship program for students at SVSU and Delta College.
In the 1960s she successfully battled cancer which was treated with radiation only.
Never married, the later years of her life were spent with her many good friends, including Betty Brenner, who moved near her in the then new Green Acres apartments. Rhea had a double unit, beautifully furnished with family antiques.
Her death occurred just two days after she celebrated her 100th birthday in 1997. Shortly after, and thanks to a million dollar gift to the university, the Rhea Miller Recital Hall at SVSU was named in her honor.
The 274-seat facility with outstanding acoustics, is described as “the region’s premier theater for concerts, performances and poetry readings.” Her gift also brings four nationally recognized musicians to the campus for free concerts open to the public each year, continuing her lifetime of encouragement to the musical arts—a fitting memorial to Rhea Miller.
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