When Bernadette Miller showed up for her first day of work in 1966, she had no idea she’d still be teaching at St. William the Abbot School more than 50 years later.
“In the Diocese of Rockville Centre, we celebrate milestones. I celebrated 25 years and then 40 and then suddenly 50 is here,” said Miller, 70, minutes before the end of her last day of school. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
The school community celebrated Miller’s retirement Friday, their last day of the year, with special gifts, flowers and songs for her. The biggest surprise, however, came when the school renamed its early childhood education hall, where Miller has worked for nearly all of her career, as Miller Hall.
The gathering in the renamed hall was a surprise to Miller. When she rounded the corner carrying a bouquet of flowers, more than 500 children in kindergarten through grade 8 gathered there cheered.
“We love you Miss Miller. Thank you for everything,” Principal Elizabeth Bricker said as school staff pulled down a curtain to reveal a hand-painted sign reading “Miller Hall.”
Miller burst into tears before being overtaken by student hugs. For many at St. William, Miller’s presence has been a constant.
“She’s a legend,” Bricker said after the ceremony. “Every parent has had Miss Miller, every parent wants their child to have her.”
When Miller first arrived at the school, she was in her early 20s and hoping to translate her love of children into a career. She grew up in Wantagh and had heard about a relatively new Catholic school in Seaford run by a group of Ursuline nuns.
Miller, who still lives in Wantagh, started teaching third grade, then moved to first and second grades before spending the last 15 years teaching kindergarten.
She didn’t come to St. William with the expectation of staying as long as she did, Miller said. She loved the children, so she’d come back the next year and after awhile, parents dropping their kids off seemed very familiar.
“Children I taught years ago stayed in the area and those children are now sending their children,” she said. “I feel very proud to have touched so many lives over the years.”
Miller never raised her voice, rarely took a day off and had a unique creativity when coming up with fun themes for activities, like planning a cowboy-themed graduation ceremony for kindergartners, Frances Hettler, Miller’s teaching partner for the last decade, and other teachers said.
“She’s just such a calming presence,” said Mary Cigliano, 53, a third-grade teacher at St. William who was one of Miller’s first- grade students years ago. “I remember everything from being in that classroom. She’s really been a mentor for me.”
In Miller’s time, the school, which opened in 1954, has expanded its curriculum to offer Spanish classes for all ages and a robust technology program, Miller said. However, one thing that hasn’t changed is the community environment.
Miller said she considers the students and teachers to be like a family and devotes as much time to it as she can, working extra hours at the after-school extended-care program for much of her career.
Although Miller is retiring, she’s not quite ready to let go. She may still participate in the aftercare program one or two days a week, she said.
“She told me she’s going to come help me set up in September,” Hettler said.