Pat Miller: An educational force at Iowa State


As the Director of the Iowa State Lectures Program, Pat Miller was responsible for over 130 speakers per year.

Katherine Kealey

Editors note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Pat Miller was the oldest of five children when she was the second oldest of five children. The Daily regrets this error.

Every day, Pat Miller started her morning by writing three pages of longhand writing as part of her morning pages. 

She did this as part of a group of writers with the Artist’s Way. The purpose was to simply be creative and to depict a stream of conscious writing. Writing, reading, running and traveling were some of the activities Pat filled her time with when she wasn’t recruiting dozens of speakers for the University Lectures Program. 

Pat, who served as director of the Iowa State University lectures program for 37 years, died Sunday, Aug. 15, at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames due to complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). 

Pat graduated from Iowa State in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Miller has been one of two directors to serve during the lectures program’s 64-year lifetime after succeeding English faculty member James Lowrie in 1981. 

Born Sept. 11, 1949, in Des Moines, Pat was the second oldest of five children. She graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy in 1967. Pat married her husband Kemp in 1968 and moved to Ames in 1973 to take a job with Iowa State University Press. Later, Pat went on to work for the University Honors program, where she met Elizabeth Beck, the director of the honors program.

Pat also had a career and interest in politics. Pat ran Johnie Hammond’s state legislature campaign and received the Human Relations Award from Iowa State and the Women’s Political Caucus award for her work.

“She is a pretty amazing person, so immediately she considers you her friend,” Beck said. “One of the things I realized is she is wasn’t going to let go of me as a friend even though I had other circles, she was hanging on and going to make it happen.”

While taking a leave of absence to take care of her two young children, she continued to pursue her education and graduated from Iowa State. During this time, Lowrie was scouting for a new assistant for the lectures program and worried he wouldn’t be able to find someone up to his standards. Beck, who was then the provost liaison to the lectures committee, recommended Pat.

“She was the perfect fit,” Beck said. “She just couldn’t learn enough about a lot of things.”

The purpose of the Lectures Series is to bring intellectual stimulus to Iowa State, providing students with educational opportunities to learn outside of the classroom.

“It (the Lectures Program) brought people on campus, but under Lowrie it blossomed to become well respected on campus and then under Pat it became a national treasure,” Beck said. “So there is a progression of steps.”

The Lectures Series has seen some changes throughout its lifetime in terms of the structure of the events, but Pat never lost focus on its original purpose: the students. The Lectures Program receives funding from student fees, and Pat carried on Lowrie’s tradition of putting the students first. All lectures combine input and approval from the Student Lectures Committee to ensure students are involved in the decision-making. 

There were plenty of times students came to Pat with a speaker who seemed impossible to book, whether it be because of cost, scheduling or high demand. Pat still found incentives to motivate them to travel to the middle of Iowa.

“You could not box her in with a specific description because she would just break open a hole in that box and walk purposefully in another direction,” Beck said.

Figures like Maya Angelou, Margaret Mead, Angela Davis and Jane Fonda all made it to the heartland. Some of them triggered controversy, Beck said, but controversial or not, if they offered students an informed perspective, Pat was bringing them to Iowa State, regardless of donors.

Pat utilized her charismatic personality and sheer knowledge to reel in anyone who couldn’t see her vision. 

“She would figure out a way to get people to pay attention to what she was asking them but it was really about ‘I want you out here because I want you to work with students,’” Beck said. 

Pat remained realistic with her students about who she could bring in with the funds the program had. Even if money ever was an issue, Pat still found a way around it even when people told her it would never happen.

While Pat dedicated much of her time to the Lectures Series, she always made time for those closest to her. She also wrote greeting cards unlike anything you would find in a Hallmark store, Beck said they were always hysterical, and some were even a little dicey. 

Megan Turriff, the taller sister and a Virgo just like her mom, remembers making “midwestern dinners for endless students from around the world and indulging in Pat’s classic sugar Christmas cookies.” As an eight-year-old, Turriff remembers eating cake with Angela Davis, and she and her mom were bringing the Lectures Series to her fourth-grade class when Geoffrey Holder came to Ames.

One of Pat’s younger daughters, Lauren Miller Brown, describes her mother as nothing less than a force, who was also loving, kind, open-hearted and smart. That is exactly how Pat raised her children to be. One of Brown’s memories of her mother while growing up was answering the home phone for Pat. 

On the other end of the line were oftentimes famous people like generals, astronauts and notably Gloria Steinem. All calling for the Lecture Series director, and Brown got to be the middleman between it all. 

When Brown answered the phone, she was to yell for Pat, saying who was on the phone, and she was not to be phased by their name no matter how prominent the figure was. Pat said this would prepare Brown for her career. Prior to working in marketing in real estate, Brown worked in movies and dealt with celebrities on a regular basis. 

Pat spent all of her life equipping young minds for their future, helping students find internships, jobs and even authoring books. Brown said in an email response that Pat was not only a mother to her and her sister but a mother to all friends and thousands of students.

Amanda Knief, the current director of the Lectures Series at Iowa State, attended lectures as a student at Iowa State, seeing biologist E.O. Wilson. Knief said while she didn’t know Pat well then she remembers the impact of her work. The two officially met after Pat retired and Knief took the job at Iowa State in August 2018. 

“Pat was a force of nature,” Knief said. “She was a demanding, empathetic, hard driving, super intelligent person. She knew a lot about a lot of things. She was very passionate about lectures and students and giving them new experiences and new ideas. Because she had this way of convincing people to do what she wanted she turned this program into something that was not just well regarded at Iowa State, but nationally recognized.”

Pat and Beck’s favorite part of lectures was when they could just sit back and watch the students listen and interact with the speakers, every time they were reminded what all the hard work was for.

“The Lectures Program is so respected here at Iowa State by faculty and staff and the community,” Knief said. “Every year we have the opportunity to share with students and so many of them through the years, including myself, may not have known Pat personally but their education was enriched because of the speakers and the experiences and the new ideas she brought to campus, and I don’t think we can ever overestimate how impactful that was.”