Tonawanda News — Sometimes, in the toughest of moments, a little bit of laughter is all it takes to get by.
There was certainly more than just a little laughter — and more than a few tears, as well — as friends and colleagues of Gerald L. "Jerry" Miller gathered in the Arts and Media Theatre at Niagara County Community College's Sanborn campus to remember the former college president's life.
Miller passed away March 2 in Myrtle Beach, S.C., so some of the longtime staff members at the college wanted to party in his honor.
Hence, "Jerry Fest," a remembrance on his 75th birthday.
"Jerry was a man of unending creativity, unpredictable determination and unwavering energy," said Paul Ferington, professor emeritus and former dean of academic and student affairs. "His spontaneously combustible thinking — such as proposing a parade from Niagara Falls to Sanborn for the college's 30th anniversary — constantly kept us energized, perplexed, stimulated and thankful to be a part of this forward-moving institution."
Other speakers who touched on their experiences with Miller (who started at the college as an English professor before becoming director of theater, dean of students and eventually president) reflected on their memories of a guy who led them into growth.
Tony Ventresca, a teacher at the school and former theater student, said he first watched one of Miller's plays in the same room as the tribute, where "The Pendulum" was performed. He decided he wanted to participate.
"You don't read a Jerry Miller play, you experience it," he said. "He was all about taking risks."
Miller's influence is still felt at the school even in 2012. He was a founder of the NOW Theatre performers, a group in which Ventresca and fellow tribute-payer Charles Steiner, CEO of the Schnectady Chamber of Commerce, were members as students.
Steiner said he auditioned for a play before the troupe formed at the school and received a small role with limited speaking parts. During one particular read-through rehearsal, he said Miller gave him a personal critique, saying his performance "was the single worst reading I may have ever heard."
"Jerry Miller challenged you," Steiner said "He was a teacher, a mentor and a friend. And by the way, that play was never performed for the public."
Barbara Williams, who sat on the Board of Directors which elected Miller president, said she had a particularly noteworthy cab ride with Miller in Washington, D.C. The cab had been pulled over by the police with them inside and it was Miller's words which calmed the situation, as far as the two of them were concerned.
She said Miller was one of those people who entered everyone's life with a purpose.
"Sometimes you meet people and they come through your life for a season and you wonder why," she said. "But Jerry Miller was one of those people who came through all our lives and we all know why."