Brand building through storytelling

In memory of Frank Milliken, 1924-2011

I have just spent a week exploring Rome, where every ancient ruin got me wondering, “What would Mr. Milliken say about this?” Frank Milliken, who taught me Latin in Durham, N.H., loved all things Roman the way Julia Child loved sweet butter and Keith Richards loves the blues–with the passion of a convert whose delight becomes a calling. What stories he’d have told about the obelisks plundered from Egypt, the ruined theatre where Caesar met his bloody death on the Ides of March. I suspect our local tour guide had a better handle on the facts, which archeologists are still unearthing. But Mr. Milliken would have told more jokes. He favoured groan-worthy puns, delivered deadpan to work the contrast between his grave demeanour–dark suits, horn-rimmed glasses–and his inner scamp.

There wasn’t much Caesar or Cicero in Mr. Milliken’s classroom. He went light on the predictable stuff to carve out classroom time for texts more appealing to spirited adolescents. I can still recite a fragment of Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe,” in which the children of warring parents fall in love through the wall that divides their houses and meet a gruesome fate, but my memory goes blank at line four. Just because I aced high school Latin doesn’t mean it stayed with me for the long term. I can’t even tell you that Latin honed my powers of analysis or stretched my vocabulary, as my parents assured me it would. The great reward was knowing Mr. Milliken, a man for whom work seemed to feel more like play, and for whom there was no better place to be than a roomful of dreaming, dawdling kids just discovering their own capacity to be enthralled by an idea. In my mind he is always somewhere around 40, with full, flushed cheeks and an air of eternal boyishness.

He was leaning on a cane the last time I saw him, a year ago almost to the day. He looked as insubstantial as dandelion fluff, but he remembered every one of the scores of former students who had gathered in Durham to honour him and his wife Eleanor, our science teacher and first guide to the earth and sky. When the Millikens taught me, I had never thanked them for the gift of their commitment–an omission rooted less in self-absorption than in ignorance of what it takes to pursue a calling with your whole heart and mind. At 60 I had learned enough about commitment to say what I could not at 17; the hard part was addressing Mr. Milliken as “Frank.” That and admitting how little Latin I remembered. I hated to disappoint my teacher but I needn’t have worried. “It was never about the language,” he said. “It was about what the Romans created. That amazing civilization!”

He died last week at 86. I miss him, even though I knew our paths would never cross again. I felt special in his eyes and I thought this had something to do with my literary bent. How many students could recite from “Pyramus and Thisbe?” Turns out I gave myself airs. At least one of us is quoting it now in Mr. Milliken’s online memorial; I’m sure most of us can manage a line or two. We were all special in his classroom, and a little of us died with him. Ave atque vale, Mr. Millken. Hail and farewell.

Click here for a related post, “Teachers to the core.”

Posted by Rona

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