Last Sunday might not be the day the music died in DeKalb County, but for a moment, the songs became a little sadder.
Millie Hansen, who helped young people make music in three DeKalb County school districts over a long career, passed away at the age of 100.
She leaves behind an auditorium named in her honor and a long roster of educators and performers she inspired.
“She was just able to get the best out of you,” said Tim Albert of Garrett, a former student who later became her colleague in teaching. “Her greatest gift in teaching was getting her students to believe in themselves and be successful in whatever she was teaching. She was just the greatest encourager I’ve ever known.”
“She let every student know that she cared about them. She just made you feel like you were a part of something special,” Jed Freels said in an article I wrote in 2005, when the Millie Hansen Auditorium was dedicated at Eastside Junior-Senior High School in Butler.
Like Albert, Freels is a former student of Millie who went on to become a high school drama teacher. Freels now runs the theater program at DeKalb High School.
Millie’s subject was music, not drama, but she also taught art for much of her career. An episode in art class at the former Auburn High School showed Albert how Millie’s enthusiasm had no bounds.
Sent outside to draw nature subjects, Albert and a classmate played basketball instead. They quickly made sketches of foliage, dashed back to class and turned in their amateurish work, explaining that they simply lacked artistic talent.
Millie responded, “Now, wait a minute, I see some good, here,” Albert said. “I never saw her leave a kid without encouraging them in what they were doing.”
In the final year before Auburn High School merged with Ashley and Waterloo to form DeKalb High School, Millie volunteered to travel to Ashley and Waterloo to teach Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Students from the three high schools joined for a Christmas performance in the gymnasium at Auburn.
“It sounded so professional” as the gym echoed like a cathedral, Albert remembered. “It was something I’ll never forget. It was one of the things that made me go on and want to be part of the culture of the arts.”
A few years later, Millie was teaching at the new DeKalb High School, and Kent Johnson’s older sister, Cathie, was in her choir.
“I remember attending her concerts and other choir events, and I thought Millie was a fireball — loads of energy and a real passion for teaching,” Johnson said.
When he was old enough, Johnson joined DeKalb’s choir. “A lot of that was due to remembering the joy that Millie brought to singing,” he said. Johnson went on to direct DeKalb’s theater students for more than 30 years.
Millie’s influence continued on a young choir director at DeKalb a few years later.
“Millie was an inspiration to all who knew her!” said Reid LaFavour. “She was always so much fun to just be around! Millie truly had the wonderful gift of encouragement. I was one of many, who received such joy from her genuine gift.”
Albert continued to cross paths with Millie. He was directing theater at Garrett High School when Millie became Garrett’s elementary choir director, late in her career, and she helped him with school musicals.
Several years later, Millie recruited Albert to come to Eastside, and he agreed on the condition that she would come out of retirement and help with school musicals.
“Millie was probably the most influential person to get our arts and music programs coordinated and brought up to a very high standard,” said Charles Hampel, superintendent for DeKalb Eastern Schools at the time.
“My favorite image of Millie … she would come to my door and put one hand on a hip, perhaps two, and say, ‘Charlie, we need to talk,’” then ask for equipment and other improvements for the arts program, Hampel said.
Jeff Stephens followed Hampel as superintendent, and he inherited Millie.
“I’m not sure when she hit her prime of life, because she was always filled with joy and enthusiasm,” Stephens said. “Her goal in life was to give people a reason to smile, and she used her love of music to advance that mission. Millie has now joined the heavenly host, and they have added an outstanding pianist to the choir.”
Stephens credits Hampel for suggesting that Eastside name its new auditorium for Millie. Hampel isn’t sure he was the first to propose the tribute, but he said, “I couldn’t have been more pleased.”
Millie worked 19 years with Eastside, accompanying music students with her piano skills and mentoring their teachers, all after formally retiring.
I spoke with Millie about her career before the dedication ceremony for the auditorium that bears her name. We talked about how she kept on making music even through personal tragedies, including a son’s death at a young age and the loss of her husband.
“I’ve just been blessed. The Lord has blessed me over, over and over — all these kids!” she said about her thousands of students. “The positives and the blessings and the good things are much more than the little grief you had, because the Lord’s brought you through it.”