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UPDATED: Teacher who was honored for her love of arts and kids turns 100

Millie Hansen spent 57 years teaching and working with students in several school districts. Eastside High School in Butler named its auditorium in her honor. She turns 100 this month. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)

Editor’s note: The News-Sentinel.com is republishing this story, which originally appeared on Feb. 13, 2008, because its subject, Millie Hansen, will turn 100 on Dec. 12 and her family is organizing a card shower to celebrate the milestone. Cards can be sent to her c/o Millers Merry Manor, 1367 S. Randolph St., Garrett, IN 46738.

Spend an hour in Millie Hansen’s presence, and you’ll understand why Eastside High School in Butler named its state-of-the-art auditorium in her honor.

The St. Joe woman’s legacy, however, is much more than the bricks and mortar of this grand edifice; the impact she has had on the lives of hundreds of students, fellow teachers and her community will endure long after the auditorium crumbles.

The 88-year-old retired music teacher is captivating, with her halo of white hair, dancing eyes and beautiful, lined face that bears evidence of a lifetime of laughter. Everyone calls her Millie – from former students and the servers at Bob Evans to the little blue-eyed cherub who clambers up beside her at the piano after Sunday services at Concord United Methodist Church outside Auburn, asking, “What we do today, Millie?” An impromptu piano lesson ensues.

A native of Huntington County, she earned a degree in art and music from Manchester College in North Manchester. During the Depression, money was scarce, and Hansen’s desire for an education was so strong she cleaned bathrooms every morning at 4:30. An opportunity to play piano for dance classes offered additional tuition funds.

“It was a piece of cake,” she confides with a twinkle in her eye, “and I made good money, too!”

She loved both art and music, and dreamed of attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of America’s premier fine-arts colleges. It was a dream never to be realized. Instead, at her mother’s urging, she obtained a teaching certificate, and discovered she loved teaching.

“God was leading me,” she said, “I could use all of my giftings.”

Hansen’s faith is simple, but profound. She speaks of frequent “conversations with God,” smiling wistfully when she recalls telling her two young sons, “God is first in my life, your father is second, and you boys are third.”

Her faith sustained her after the drowning death of her older son, Hal, in 1972, and the passing of her beloved husband, Omer, in 1987, after 48 years of marriage.

As a teacher, she worked from 1941 to 1967 at schools in Roanoke, Fort Wayne and Leo, at the last of which, former student Diana Ream recalls, “She was peppy and full of energy … a bit of a whirlwind.” Students were expected to do their best.

“She always had a twinkle in her eye. She was full of life and loved what she was doing,” Ream says.

Ream credits Hansen with planting the seeds for her own lifelong love of music.

Most of the remainder of Hansen’s career was spent in DeKalb County schools.

Eastside’s Fine Arts Department head, Tim Albert, recalls meeting her in 1967, when he was a student in her art class at Auburn High School. He went on to teach with her at both Garrett and Eastside high schools.

“In my entire life, I’ve never known a greater encourager than Millie Hansen,” he says. “Even when she was just accompanying kids, she would say, `Oh, you can do better …, ‘ and they did!”

She had an uncanny ability to see a student’s potential, along with unparalleled powers of persuasion to explore and develop that potential.

“Has anyone ever tried to say no to Millie Hansen?” Albert challenged the audience at the auditorium dedication. “You can’t do it!”

Jana Reinking met Hansen in 1977, when she accepted the music position at Garrett High School on Hansen’s retirement. Reinking readily admits that “no one could fill those shoes.”

The two women forged a lasting friendship, and when Reinking moved to Eastside, Hansen came in regularly to play for her choirs and to recruit students for the choral department.

“She liked to walk down the halls and suggest to students that they should be in choir,” says Reinking. A devoted advocate of the arts, Hansen “never missed a concert, a contest, play or musical,” Reinking says.

Hansen’s influence hasn’t been limited to the educational community. She also directed church choirs of all ages. While at County Line Church of God, she formed the County Line Quartet with young men from her teen choir. Darren McKown, one of the quartet members and now choral director at Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne, credits her with his decision to become a music teacher.

“She is the biggest supporter I’ve ever had,” he says, praising her passion and commitment.

“She loves kids,” he adds. “She sees the good that no one else sees.”

Hansen motivated and inspired her students, he says, “because we wanted to please her; we longed for her approval.” Hansen never forgets a name, recognizing former students decades later, and she’s awed by the number of students who have become music teachers, professional musicians, church choir members and actors in community theater. Few people can remember all their teachers, but no one forgets Millie Hansen. Her unbridled enthusiasm for music, art and theater, coupled with love for her students, have made her a legend.