"75 and sunny": Legacy scholarship reflects care, optimism of 1959 alumna

Barbara Henderson Miller
Barbara Henderson Miller before her death of angiosarcoma in 2013

Alexxa Palazzolo, MOTRL, is thrilled to list that acronym after her name. The 2018 graduate of WSU Applebaum’s master of occupational therapy program just passed her national board exam for certification as a registered and licensed OT.

“I decided I wanted to become an occupational therapist when I realized that we are often the ones telling a rehabilitation patient what they can do, rather than what they can no longer do,” Palazzolo said.

This outlook is one that fellow Wayne State OT alumna Barbara Henderson Miller ’59 would be proud to say she had a hand in shaping. In 1998, Miller established an endowed scholarship for OT students ­– Palazzolo among them – who have, in her words, “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.”

Program Director Doreen Head explained, “Barbara Miller was a blessing to our program. Her scholarship helps second- or third-year students who are most improved – those who have raised their grade point average,” she said. “The scholarship rewards hard work and determination to do well in the program.”

Before her death of angiosarcoma in 2013, Miller found joy in getting to know the recipients of her scholarship and made it a priority to keep up with their personal and professional updates.

“She referred to her scholarship recipients as ‘grandkids’ and, like any proud grandmother, she would be genuinely interested in their career plans and their families,” said Tiffany Cusmano, community engagement specialist at the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

EACPHS also hosted an annual luncheon to celebrate the achievements of the Miller scholars, a tradition now carried on by her husband George and their daughter, Siouxsan, who runs Green Daffodil Studios in Ferndale.

Barbara and Siouxsan Miller
Barbara and Siouxsan Miller

“My mom’s story becomes part of the life of each student who earns her scholarship,” said Siouxsan. “This preserves her memory not only at her beloved alma mater, but through the career and long-term impact of every one of the OTs who are touched by her generosity. She would be so proud that her scholarship serves as cheerleader to help those who just need a little encouragement to achieve their goals.”

Allison Nemetz ’15 said that receiving the scholarship gave her confidence.

“It meant that I had support from my community, and that all of the work that I had put in during school was being appreciated,” Nemetz said. Today, she is an occupational therapist in a private clinic in Traverse City, with certifications in driving instruction and as a brain injury specialist.

She chose her career path after her grandmother had a stroke and Nemetz saw her benefiting from occupational therapy while she was in the hospital. 

2018 WSU Miller Scholars
The 2018 Miller Scholars with Dean Catherine Lysack, Siouxsan Miller, George Miller and Doreen Head

Triston Ekleberry ’12, who now does inpatient rehab at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, has a similar story.

“I knew I wanted to be in the health field after my brother was in an ATV accident,” Ekleberry said. “I saw how occupational therapy helped him regain his independence and life again after his major accident. With the help of the Barbara Henderson Miller Scholarship, I was able to fulfill my personal goal of helping impact people’s everyday lives.”

Miller spent more than 22 years as an occupational therapist, working with toddlers, preteens and adults at Detroit Receiving, Sinai and Beaumont hospitals and the Society for Crippled Children and Adults. She was an ardent volunteer throughout her life, including lifelong participation in Alpha Gamma Delta, reading to first-graders at Pierce Elementary School and leading children’s groups at the Belle Isle Aquarium, serving as a Detroit Zoo docent for decades, and much more.

Miller carried her optimism and generosity of spirit to every personal interaction, even changing her answering machine message to reflect the weather. “75 degrees and sunny,” of course, was her favorite forecast to share with her callers.

“Any time she could touch someone else’s life, she would,” said Siouxsan. “She had a special way of connecting with people, and every conversation she had with people left them feeling better than they did before.”

Scholarships encourage students to achieve their goals. For more information about creating a scholarship fund, contact Denise Thomas at deniselei@wayne.edu or 313-577-1095.

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