Jacob Miller was the kind of biology teacher who installed a hawk cam in a chapel bell tower, designed and planted a prairie plot in front of the school and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with his students.
“The outdoors was as much his classroom as room 412 was,” said Lois Fruen, who recently retired as head of the science department at Breck School, where Miller taught for 37 years. “He was amazingly creative and innovative.”
Miller, who died at 67 from lymphoma, had a natural knack for engaging students and making science fascinating and fun.
Annie McFarland took his biology class at Breck when she was a sophomore. During a test review, Miller disappeared into a storeroom and came out with a human brain to show the class. “He let us hold it with gloves,” recalled McFarland, now a freshman at the University of Chicago. “My plan is to major in microbiology because of him.”
Miller’s love for science was infectious, said Ava Mokhtari, who was in his AP Biology class her junior year. “To Dr. Miller, learning was about so much more than memorizing and regurgitating facts from a book,” she wrote in an e-mail. “He wanted his students to feel the same passion for biology, and, more specifically, nature, that he had.”
Annik Miller, his daughter, took 10th grade biology from her dad. “It was a little embarrassing because he taught human reproduction,” she said. “But he was very funny when discussing awkward topics.”
Many of Miller’s colleagues also noted his wry sense of humor. “Jake was incredibly smart and very quick-witted,” said Frank Eustis, a close friend and head of Breck’s English department.
Miller, who was known as “Doc” by his students and “Jake” by his friends, was born in Fowler, Kan., in 1948. He completed his masters program at Emporia State University and pursued a Ph.D. in ecology and behavioral biology at the University of Minnesota, joining Breck School in 1978.
“Jake loved the high school age,” said his wife, Concha Fernandez del Rey. “He said they really needed someone who believes in them.”
Tom Taylor, the Breck Upper School director, agreed. “Jake was a master at mixing his deep knowledge of biology with a love for working with teenagers,” he said.
As a biology teacher, Miller’s life revolved around studying nature, but he was also passionate about bird-watching, photography and hiking. “He and I climbed lots of mountains,” said Del Rey.
Miller also led many student trips to “classrooms” around the world, from Hawk’s Ridge in Duluth to the jungles of Panama.
In 2014, Miller received the Ernest J. Campbell Award, which is given by the school’s faculty and staff. That same year, Miller retired from teaching because of his illness.
“Jake had a huge heart,” said Eustis. “He was just as curious and interested in people as he was the natural world.”
In a speech he gave in 2011, Miller talked about how one trait defined his life. “My whole life I have been curious, wanting to know about nearly everything. In science class, I try to teach that curiosity is the root of good questions that lead to new and sometimes great discoveries.”
When she attended high school reunions, Annik Miller said “people would come up to me and tell me about what a great influence he was on their life,” she said.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Miller is survived by sister Jannice Bond, brothers Robert Miller and James Miller, and three grandchildren.
Services have been held.