One family, two cancer diagnosesConnie Miller was the adult crossing guard at Pullman Elementary School who sang on sub-zero days, helped kindergartners pull on their gloves and volunteered to paste, cut and color when teachers needed help.
By: Toni Lambert, South Washington County Bulletin
Connie Miller was the adult crossing guard at Pullman Elementary School who sang on sub-zero days, helped kindergartners pull on their gloves and volunteered to paste, cut and color when teachers needed help.
“She worked and volunteered at the school at least 11 years,” said Barb Koch, who served alongside Miller for nine of those years.
Connie Miller went home from school one day in late November not feeling well and never came back. She died, at age 58, on Dec. 2, of complications from cervical cancer.
“None of us even knew she was sick,” Koch said. “She was always happy; she never complained.”
Connie’s husband Reuben said in October she began treatment for what doctors thought was a kidney infection, but after 15 days on antibiotics, she was still in pain and doctors ordered a CT scan. They found tumors and nodules on her lungs and finally diagnosed cervical cancer that had metastasized throughout her body. She was admitted to Woodwinds Hospital in Woodbury Nov. 25.
Connie Miller’s sudden death took the family by complete surprise. They were already dealing with her husband Reuben’s cancer.
A malignant tumor was discovered in Reuben’s small bowel in March last year. After surgery, he thought the cancer was gone until a scan in September revealed another tumor. Reuben was scheduled to begin chemotherapy with a test group at Mayo Clinic on Dec. 1.
“It was ironic,” he said recently. “Here I was running around writing a will and getting our affairs in order and Connie is the one to die.”
To help Reuben and his 21-year-old son, also named Reuben, with rapidly growing medical expenses, a benefit fundraiser is being organized by Boy Scout Troop 83, for which Reuben served as Scoutmaster for the past five years.
“We’re still putting the finishing touches on the benefit,” said Dale Bauer, Troop 83 assistant scoutmaster and longtime friend.
“I’ve been in Scouts with Reuben almost from the beginning nearly 10 years ago,” Bauer said recently.
“The kids really like him. He goes out of his way to help troop members,” Bauer said. “He can get down to a kid’s level to help solve a problem or motivate a Scout. His attitude is ‘we work together, we’re a team, and we need every team member to do their part.’”
Veid Muiznieks, another longtime scouting colleague, said Reuben “really understands the scouting program, to train boys to be leaders.”
Reuben said Connie was the one to work with their son while he was in Cub Scouts, “but the moment he crossed over into Boy Scouts, she handed the job to me.
“I like the kids. I like taking them outdoors and teaching them,” Reuben said.
He’s also active with youth mission groups at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in St. Paul Park. “I’ve been on three youth mission trips and hope to go on one to Toronto this year. One year the mission director was named Reuben, too — we had fun with that!”
Reuben and Connie, both originally from St. Paul, were married when they were 18 and 19, just after he joined the Navy. They had known each other and been secretly engaged since they were 15 and 16.
“For the first 22 years of our marriage, I was gone about 13 years,” Reuben said, reflecting on their life together. “But that didn’t stop Connie. She made friends wherever we lived.
“She loved being at Pullman, it was her social life,” he said. “She started volunteering when Reuben was in first grade, just to be near him. Then she applied for a part-time position as crossing guard. She had many friends at the school and cared very much for the children.
“Just before she died — she couldn’t speak by then — she wouldn’t let me sleep until I wrote her thoughts down,” Reuben said. “They were a message of love and comfort to me and all her friends at the school.”
At Pullman, principal Ed Ross said, “Connie spent all her days here even though she was only scheduled to work at specific times. She was very much a part of the school. All the kids knew who she was.”
Crossing guards are important at Pullman, Barb Koch said, because every child has to cross a street to come and go from school.
She and Connie, along with other volunteers, could always be found on school street corners from 7:40 a.m. to 8 a.m. and from 2:30 to about 3 p.m. every day.
“On days when the temperature or wind chill factor was zero or below, only the adults worked the street crossings,” Koch said. “Connie used to make up songs, pretend it was 80 degrees outside.
“The little kids loved her. She was ‘Miss Connie’ to most of them,” Koch said. “She was always available to help with health screenings, D.A.R.E. graduation and classroom chores.
“She loved to put stickers of any kind, but especially stars, on graded papers,” Koch said, “so, at her wake, Reuben handed out stars for visitors to place on her casket.”
Pullman staff members tied a fleece blanket for her to have at the hospital, Koch said, which “thrilled Connie.” The same blanket was draped over her at the wake. “We said it was our collective arms around her.”
A benefit spaghetti dinner for the Reuben and Connie Miller family of St. Paul Park will be held from 12 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24, at St. Thomas Aquinas Activities Building, 920 Holley Ave., St. Paul Park. The event will feature dinner by Tinucci’s, live music by the Eric Thomas Duo, a silent auction, bake sale and beer garden. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children, 10 years and younger.
Silent auction items needed
Dale Bauer, a co-organizer for the Miller benefit, said he still needs items for the silent auction. To donate, call Bauer at (651) 459-7955 or Christina Breisler at (651) 324-5514