by Jane Lenel
On weekdays at 8 a.m. Elmer S. Miller, age 6, set out with his older sister and cousin on his walk to Fairview School – one mile on dirt roads through the fields and farms of Elizabethtown, PA. Arriving at the one-room schoolhouse, he took his place in the front row with the other two first graders while the older students, grades two through eight, lined up in rows behind him ready to be educated by Miss Garber.
On a platform in front of the room each class recited while others, 35 to 38 in all, prepared their assignments. Since Elmer found his own assignments too easy, he cured his boredom by listening and learning from the upper grades. The process later resulted in his being first in mathematics in the annual county test for high school eligibility.
Looking back on these early school days, Miller, now an 81-year-old resident of Cathedral Village in upper Roxborough, remembers less about classroom academics than the lesson he got from his father in response to his pranks in school, i.e., “Some paddlings really hurt.”
However, this was evidently ineffective long-run because Elmer’s inclination for mischief continued through high school. Case in point: the snake he pointed at a girl sitting next to him, scaring her into a scream and earning for himself two weeks’ dismissal from freshman biology class.
Miller’s delightful memoir, “Growing up Mennonite in Rural Pennsylvania” (McGraw Hill, 2012), is full of paddle- and paddle-free learning occasions and boy-to-man conversations with his father, as well as the understanding of cows’ characters and milk- producing foibles complete with recognition of their varied dung aromas and other examples of life on a farm.
Elmer was certainly not idle growing up. In his fifth year in school his family moved to a farm where he had seven cows to milk by hand morning and night along with other chores. When he was 16 (the required age for kids to remain in school) he was hired out full-time (with no school attendance) to work on a 35-acre potato farm, where the cow number grew to 36, as back-bending (and aching) potato “picking” filled the hours through post-dusk — 10 hours a day in summertime. However, he did get paid $100 ($40 to him and $60 to his parents), which sum was quickly increased.
After four years of farming, Elmer took the GED test and college entrance exams for Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, VA, where he was accepted and majored in religion and philosophy. Following graduation he attended Seminary on the same college campus, where the focus was on biblical studies, Greek and Hebrew languages and philosophy.
This study generated a significant challenge to many of his early Mennonite beliefs since “Greek and Hebrew language classes, plus the developing new theology by Tillich, Bultmann and others questioning the basic tenets of traditional Christian theology, generated agnostic tendencies in my thinking.”
Upon graduation from Seminary in 1956, Miller traded campus life to a mission in northern Argentina where he and his wife Lois lived among Toba Indians, visiting families, speaking in their Pentecostal church services and helping construct an alphabet for their language.
In preparation for their new life, Elmer and Lois took classes in linguistics and anthropology at the Hartford (Conn.) School of Missions, linguistics at the University of Oklahoma and a year in Costa Rica to learn Spanish.
“My time in Argentina was the first serious awareness that my identity as a Mennonite and an American had become dislodged,” Miller said last week. “It opened the door to anthropology and eventually a total deconstruction of my cultural identity. It was all VERY liberating.”
In addition, the Ford Foundation sent the Millers to Brazil in 1975 to help them construct a Ph.D program? Elmer also taught a class in anthropology at the University of Brasilia. He explained, “Life in Costa Rica, Argentina and later Brazil and Italy transformed my thinking not only with regard to my rural Mennonite heritage but also my perspective on our nation. I continued to respect its strength but also became more aware of its foibles.”
After five years in Argentina, Miller returned to his degree-oriented education in the U.S. and returned to the School of Missions, completing his master’s degree in linguistics and anthropology. He then won a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a Ph.D in anthropology.
Miller then gained a professorship and eventually chairmanship for 11 years of the anthropology department at Temple University, where Miller remained for 32 years (1966-1998) supervising 33 doctoral students who all received Ph.D’s. He also directed Temple Abroad in Rome from 1982 to 1985 and served as Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences from 1986 to 1989.
Having climbed the academic ladder from bottom to top, Elmer is now retired and lives with Lois at Cathedral Village. They have two daughters: Rosina, who is director of the Philadelphia Center’s internship program, and Lisa, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.
In addition to his latest tome about growing up as a Mennonite, Dr. Miller has written seven other books about anthropology and his experiences living with Indians in Argentina. He has also contributed chapters to seven additional books and articles in a dozen or so journals.
“But the most important acts in my life,” Miller insisted, “were returning to my roots to marry my childhood sweetheart, and after 12 years of no success at having children, our two daughters finally appeared. Each of them has a young boy and girl who give us much delight.”
On the issue of our country’s relationship to other nations, with which Miller has years of first-hand observations,he declared, “At the moment our country is at an imbalance with too many nations. Fortunately, our arrogance as a country has diminished in proportion to our loss of international prestige. I am optimistic
about the future, however, as there appears to be greater awareness of these issues among us than there was previously.”
Dr. Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org