This article was published in The Appalachian.
It all started with a letter.
After 9/11, Appalachian State University was looking for a way to help – “trying to figure out what to do,” said Jenny Koehn, associate director of Student Programs.
Former Dean of Students Barbara Daye decided the university could best help by connecting with one family affected by the tragedy.
The university had recently been featured in Time, and Daye still had a contact at the magazine. Through that contact, Appalachian first connected with the Miller family – Laurie Miller and her daughters, Elizabeth, Rachel and Katie, then six, five and three. The four had just lost their husband and father, Doug Miller, a Staten Island fireman who died in the World Trade Center.
“We just started with a letter,” Koehn said. “We wrote a letter and said, ‘We don’t know what this could look like, we have no idea, but if you’re willing to sign up, maybe we can send some love and support your way.”
Miller agreed, and over the years the relationship developed.
“We didn’t even know what we were asking, really,” Koehn said. “We just wanted to connect.”
One of the first communications the Millers received was a video tape full of greetings and good wishes from the student union staff, Koehn said.
“We went around with a video camera and had a bunch of people saying, ‘Hi, Rachel, Katie and Elizabeth. We love you and we’re thinking about you’…we showed them all the candy in Cascades,” Koehn said.
These days, the university sends the Millers cards, flowers, Christmas packages, and “just because” packages – the most recent was an Appalachian-themed cornhole set.
The Millers also receive plenty of Appalachian apparel.
“This family is the best-dressed Mountaineer family in the north,” Koehn said. “They say there’s not a day that goes by that one or two of them aren’t wearing some sort of Mountaineer stuff.”
The Millers have kept in touch with the university, as well. In Koehn’s office, she keeps four folders: one for Laurie, one for Elizabeth, one for Rachel and one for Katie. Each folder is filled with cards and letters. Some, from the years when the girls were younger, are covered in glitter, feathers and puff paint. Sayings like “We love Appalachian!” cover the cards.
The family has made the trip to Boone four times since 2001, and Elizabeth made a fifth trip last summer, to attend a forensics camp sponsored by the chemistry department.
There’s been some talk about Elizabeth – now a junior – attending the university when she graduates, but only time will tell, Koehn said.
“I would say that all of them, in their hearts, could see themselves going to school here, easy. But you know, they live up north and a lot of things could change. To me, the big compliment for Appalachian is that they even want to,” Koehn said.
Various individuals at the university have maintained a relationship with Miller and her daughters – now 16, 15 and 13.
Director of External Affairs and Community Relations Susan McCracken is one of them.
“I’m just really proud of that sustained relationship with them,” McCracken said. “And you know, it was certainly a result of [9/11], but that relationship has grown far beyond what happened on that day.”
Vice Chancellor for Student Development Cindy Wallace said the Miller family is a “gift” to Appalachian State.
“It is that very pure response of Appalachian students, faculty and staff – what can I do? What’s one thing I can do to respond to a horrific event? And we picked this beautiful family with three young children, and they’ve been part of our family for ten years,” Wallace said.