‘That’s When it Hit Home’: A Son Leaves for Ball State

  • So, sheets, towels and ... snacks. When Clay Miller (right) and his mother, Angie, went shopping for back-to-school supplies, food stuffs were at the top of at least one person’s list. (Photos by Don Rogers)

For as long as she could get away with it, Angie Miller told herself little lies about her son Clay’s impending college move-in day.

“I just tried to ignore the piles of stuff in my bedroom, and when we were at Target, I told myself, ‘I’m just getting him ready to go on a trip or something,’ ” said Miller, ’94. “But when he started bringing stuff downstairs, that’s when I started to freak out a little … That’s when it hit home.”

Clay Miller, shown at home with his dog, Alfie, moved into DeHority this week as a member of the Class of 2020.

Clay Miller, shown at home with his dog, Alfie, moved into DeHority this week as a member of the Class of 2020.

Nearly 6,500 students, accompanied by friends or family members, spent the better part of this week preparing for, then moving into, Ball State’s nine residence halls. The transition from home to college is emotional, but it can be especially tough when it’s the first child leaving home. Because even as excited as they are for Clay to be at Ball State, Angie and her husband, Todd, of Pendleton, Indiana, are feeling what scores of parents before them have experienced: How did this come so soon?

For the Millers, the journey of 32 miles took 18 years to prepare for.

Ball State wasn’t on his radar

When Clay first started looking at colleges, and despite his parents’ ties to the school, Ball State wasn’t on the list. It was nothing personal, Clay said.

“I just knew too many people who went to school here.”

Active in theater and choir throughout high school, Clay had his sights on warmer climes — and a school in central Florida that has a reputation for placing many of its theater majors in jobs at the nearby Walt Disney World theme park. A degree and real-world experience, Clay thought. What more did he need?

“I was really set on it, because of the Disney connection,” he said. “I thought I knew where I was going.”

But during a theater workshop in Carmel, Indiana, Clay began wondering about Ball State after hearing a talk by Bill Jenkins, chairman of the Department of Theatre and Dance.

“He talked about this familylike group of people here and the connections the teachers have all over the country,” Clay said.

Faculty including Sutton Foster, a Tony Award-winning actress known for her roles on Broadway in “Anything Goes” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

“Once he said ‘Sutton Foster,’ that got my attention.”

Parents’ quiet hopes come true

Though happy with Clay’s choice, Todd Miller said he was surprised by his son’s decision.

“If you would have asked me, I would have told you he was going to Florida,” Todd, ’94, said. “It’s all he talked about.”

But Todd said he and Angie were holding out hope, and encouraging Clay to keep an open mind, about a different, closer school. Maybe one they both knew the fight song for.

Clay Miller is one of five Pendleton Heights High School graduates who this year chose to attend Ball State to study theater.

Clay Miller is one of five Pendleton Heights High School graduates who this year chose to attend Ball State to study theater.

“He is one of those kids that is always in a big group of other kids,” Todd said. “We’d have 20 kids over at our house on any given night, and they’d all be laughing and singing.

“I just thought, ‘He’s going to want that in college, too.’ ”

And based on what their son’s high school director, Jacque Brown, ’74, ’76 MA, had told parents and students, they were pretty sure Clay would find that at Ball State.

It was Brown, ultimately, who persuaded Clay to learn more about the school.

“Clay is a very talented actor. … When I knew he was interested in pursuing this, I told him I thought he ought to at least visit Ball State. As a graduate, I had a very positive experience there as both an undergraduate and graduate student and felt it would be a great fit for Clay,” Brown said. “The Department of Theatre has come so far … and has become a very respected school for theater students by people all over the country. I felt like Clay would not only get a great education and training from the theater staff but would also be a great fit for the campus.”

So Clay took a tour, learning more about theater and dance but also getting a true feel for the overall campus.

After that, he readied himself to become a member of the Ball State Class of 2020.

“Once I visited, there was nothing changing my mind,” Clay said. “After I went on that visit, I just knew this is where I’m supposed to be.”

In theater and dance, you’re like family

Andrea Sadler, recruitment coordinator and special projects assistant in theater and dance, said it’s no accident that Brown wanted to refer her own students back to Ball State. It’s a culture that’s been created and nurtured for years by everyone in the department. And it not only resonates with people when they’re in the program but stays with them long after they’ve become alumni.

“We have students who have graduated 10, 12 years ago, and they’ll call and say, ‘Hey, I was offered this job from this person. Does anybody know them?’

“They feel connected, and they are connected, because of this family.”

Sadler, known as “Mom” to most in the department, said the theater family operates the same way all good ones do — with love and respect.

“If you aren’t in a place where you feel safe to fail, you’ll never create art,” she said. “The family, our family, has to create a secure place so you have confidence. You have to love the people you’re going to be around, and you have to love where you’re going to lay your head at night.”

Before goodbye, some packing and tacos

Once the decision was made as to where Clay would be living, the Millers started getting him ready to leave — sort of. Clay and Angie came to Orientation and started assembling a few items that he’d need for college.

“I kept telling him, ‘You’ve only bought stuff; you haven’t packed anything.’ And last weekend (right before move-in), he’s making all these plans to go out and be gone and I said, ‘This is your last weekend here. You’re staying home to pack.’ ”

She wouldn’t let herself talk about some of the lasts that were coming, but she did think of them. The family went to Grandma’s house for supper the night before he left for Clay’s favorite tacos. And Angie had a couple of moments where she caught herself tearing up a bit.

But, it’s time, she and Todd said.

“He’s ready,” Todd said. “I’m going to miss him, of course. But that’s part of the deal, right? This is just the next step.”

Todd and Angie Miller moved their son Clay into DeHority Hall, 26 years after they both moved on campus.

Todd and Angie Miller moved their son Clay into DeHority Hall, 26 years after they both moved on campus.

Destination: DeHority

On move-in day, Clay had a before-school breakfast with his brother, Cole, 15. And Angie’s voice caught again as a neighbor Clay had grown up with came out and waved to him as he was leaving.

“Good luck!” she yelled across the cul-de-sac.

After Clay and his parents dropped Clint, 11, off with his grandparents — he was recovering from a slight concussion after a playground game of sharks and minnows tag — the trio headed north.

“It started to feel real as we were driving past stuff and I was thinking, ‘That’s the last time I’ll see the (high school) and other things for a while,’ ” Clay said. “I’ve been to Ball State to see friends, but now it’s going to be my room I’m going back to at night. That’s kinda weird. And knowing that, pretty soon, I’ll be in all those buildings taking classes …”

It took three trips upstairs to get Clay’s stuff into his third-floor room in DeHority, a living-learning community for Honors College students (“When I moved in, I brought two duffel bags,” Todd said.), but soon enough the three were getting the room in order.

Angie was making the bed while Clay started unloading clothes.

And the goodbyes were coming soon enough.

“My advice? Don’t forget to study,” Angie said. “Don’t forget why you’re here.”

Todd nodded, and smiled.

“And enjoy it,” he said. “It goes by so quick.”