Peggy has proved the naysayers wrong, worked hard for SDSU

Chuck Cecil

Chuck Cecil

I’d never seen anything like it.

At half-time at a recent beautiful afternoon of football at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium, The Pride of the Dakotas marching band spelled out “‘Bye Peggy” on the field, and saluted soon-to-retire President Miller with their rendition of “Hey Baby” (inserting Peggy) at the end of the always thrilling half-time show.

I’ve seen presidential salutes before during a half-century of watching the Jackrabbits and The Pride at old State Field and now at aging Coughlin Stadium.

But I can’t recall ever seeing what happened next.

As President Miller stood to wave and acknowledge the band’s vocal rendition, spectators in the stadium began to stand, too.

First a few rose to their feet, then others, until nearly all were standing. They spontaneously turned toward President Miller, and began to applaud.

They were showing their collective-but more importantly-their individual appreciation for what Mrs. Miller has meant to them and to their university and for what she has done during her nine-year tenure at SDSU.

This diminutive, five feet, one-inch lady from a little town in Kentucky has been turning heads and inspiring applause over and over during her time in South Dakota. She hasn’t stumbled and she hasn’t fallen, as many naysayers predicted.

She’s stood up to the politicians and their minions. When she was first appointed, some were not all that pleased that the Board of Regents had selected not only an “easterner,” but someone with little experience in agriculture and Great Plains economics. And, heaven forbid, she was a woman. SDSU had never had one of those at the helm before.

Many felt she’d never be able to articulate her school’s needs to hard-headed, conservative leaders in a state not known for gold-plated coffers. They’d eat that little lady alive, some predicted. They’ll issue her marching orders and she’ll hold back a “rearin’-to-go” South Dakota State University` in its traces to trot dutifully along side, not ahead of the rest of the pack.

Does she even know what a feed lot is…or what a South Dakota ranch or farm looks like and needs? She probably thinks a Poland China hog is akin to a Noritake China wood duck.

Well, the naysayers were wrong. Since she moved into the president’s office on the first day of 1998 she’s handled it nicely.

She’s swatted flies in cattle sheds and slogged through experimental plots at field days from Antelope Station to Cottonwood. She’s rested her foot on the weathered bottom board of the feedlot and corral fences, and chatted with the farmers and ranchers about their problems, hopes and dreams in a language they understand. She’s helped keep strong that traditional bond between the Land Grant University and the citizens who make their livelihood from South Dakota agriculture.

She’s hosted world-famous artists, authors, scientists, university students from small towns like Artesian and Kaylor, and foreign and domestic dignitaries on campus and at her home. She’s made speeches to high ranking government officials, important industry leaders and South Dakota high school graduating classes of all sizes, some with fewer seniors in the audience than there are members of the Jackrabbit’s golf team.

During her watch, enrollment at SDSU has grown by 2,559 students, more than the current enrollment of Northern State, Dakota State or the School of Mines, whose president, by the way, earned a salary larger than hers and he doesn’t have nearly the headache or the challenge of leading a university community of over 11,000 students, a large, diverse faculty and a Cooperative Extension Service and Experiment Station to boot.

The number of SDSU students on scholarships has grown by 140 percent. Annual dollars for scholarships are now over $3 million, up 253 percent since 1998.

Total grant and contract income to the state’s Land Grant university has grown by 300 percent. She helped organize the new campus Research Park. Total invested in new buildings and in renovation of existing campus buildings was nearly $73 million during her years at the helm.

She’s expanded the academic offerings and created opportunities for SDSU students to study at over 125 universities around the world. She’s expanded offerings in the arts and provided leadership as the Jackrabbits’ made the successful move up to Division One in athletics. She’s accepted on behalf of faculty, students and the people of South Dakota dozens of university honors and accolades.

She’d be the first to say that she was only a part of all this, assigning most of the credit to the students, the scientists, the teachers and the others, from accountants to the plumbers and custodians, all of whom under her leadership worked together to make SDSU even better.

The small town girl from Mayfield, Kentucky, has fit in perfectly and has adopted South Dakota as her state. After retirement the last day of this December, she and her husband Bob, who has also worked tirelessly (and without pay) for SDSU, will move to their newly acquired Volga home, and join with the rest of us in our support of SDSU and of her successor, new President David Chicoine.

The Pride of the Dakotas Marching Band that recently led a spontaneous salute to her is more than one of the best in the county.

The “Pride” is all of us, too, Peggy and Bob Miller included.