On Feb. 13, Jean Norbury-Miller’s 100th birthday, family members presented her with a GrandBear medallion.
That’s a recognition from the MSU Alumni Association for alumni who earned a degree 70 or more years ago, and/or have reached 90 years of age.
They also gave her a big surprise. They were taking her from her home in Norfork, Virginia, back to her roots and alma mater in Springfield.
Four generations piled into a van for the two-day drive. The journey was granddaughter Allyson Emmerson’s idea.
“She has her family in Norfork, but this is her home,” Emmerson said. “This meant the world to her.”
“I enjoyed every minute of my time here”
Norbury-Miller is among the oldest living Bears.
“She didn’t sleep at all, she was so excited. I kept saying ‘Mom, you have to sleep or you’ll be mentally fatigued,’ but she isn’t,” said her daughter Lahoma Rodriguez.
Norbury-Miller grew up on a farm on Route 66, near Kearney Street.
She attended Missouri State back when it was Southwest Missouri State Teacher’s College and earned a degree in education in 1941.
She was a member of the Bruin Boosters, an all-female drum and bugle corps.
“I enjoyed every minute of my time here,” she said. “We had a lot of fun, a lot of fun. I graduated 79 years ago.”
Lori Fan, executive director of alumni relations, spent the morning driving the family around campus. They got a private tour narrated by Angie Pinegar, assistant director of advancement services.
As the van rounded the square downtown, Norbury-Miller pointed.
“Oh my goodness, there’s Heer’s Department Store.”
Then she signaled where a cinema used to be and said: “I am not supposed to tell you this, but I used to sneak into the movie theatre.”
That was just a peek of the mighty spirit housed inside this woman’s small frame.
This spry great-grandmother didn’t retire until she was 92 years old. She still enjoys a shot of Woodford Reserve bourbon whiskey (Maker’s Mark was her favorite until she was about 96).
A three-time stroke survivor, she navigated stairs on campus with minimal assistance.
“I am flabbergasted. It certainly has changed,” Norbury-Miller said as she looked around.
She recalled dissecting frog hearts in the Science Building, now Siceluff Hall. As she watched students go by, Norbury-Miller commented that she lived in an era when they didn’t have backpacks.
A career, and marriage to an army officer
After graduation, she taught in Licking, Missouri and Aurora, Missouri.
She then worked at a telephone company in the building that is now MSU’s Jim D. Morris Center.
During World War II, she met Gray Miller, a lieutenant in the Army who was based at Camp Crowder.
He came to an open house at a school. She looked up, and there was this handsome lieutenant standing at the top of the stairs — with his fly open.
Norbury-Miller whispered to him to check his coat. When he reached inside, he realized his zipper was broken. The shop teacher wired the zipper shut.
Three weeks later, in 1943, Gray and Jean were married. She followed her husband wherever the Army sent him. They moved 29 times and eventually settled in Virginia in 1978.
During 47 years of marriage, they had two daughters, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He died in 1990.
Reminiscing… and looking forward to the next 100 years
Back on the tour, the family stopped into President Clif Smart’s office.
Norbury-Miller had asked to meet him.
“In 1941, Dr. Ellis was president of the university,” she told Smart. “He was one swell guy. He knew everybody on campus.”
Smart responded that he tried his best to do the same, but with 26,000 students and more than 2,400 employees, it was a little different now!
When Smart asked what brought her back here, she said it was time for a visit “because I don’t think I’ll live another 100 years.”
As Norbury-Miller and Smart posed for a photo, they shook hands.
“Now, in 100 years,” she started to say… “We’ll do this again,” Smart finished her sentence.
After lunch at the Union Club and a quick stop at the bookstore for BearWear, Norbury-Miller wanted to pose for a photo with the Bear statue in front of PSU.
Once a Bear, always a Bear.