Maddie Brown's great-grandmother, Hilda Mahler, Class of 1920, promenades with her classmates to their commencement festivities within sight of Slant Walk, as iconic in Hilda's day as Maddie's.
Maddie Brown's great-grandmother, Hilda Mahler, Class of 1920, promenades with her classmates to their commencement festivities within sight of Slant Walk, as iconic in Hilda's day as Maddie's.
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A true "Miami Family" will celebrate a 100-year tradition during commencement

Great-grandmother and great-granddaughter experience pandemics in different eras

maddie-and-jeff.jpgMaddie Brown, Class of 2020, and her dad, Jeff, Class of 1990, in a surprise, “homemade” commencement ceremony.

By Donna Boen, editor of Miamian alumni magazine

When Maddie Brown graduates from Miami University this weekend, she will become a fourth-generation Miamian, continuing a family tradition started 100 years ago.

Maddie’s great-grandmother, Hilda Mahler, earned a teaching degree from Miami in 1920. She started the program in 1918 but returned home to Hamilton, Ohio, only weeks later when the university was forced to close because of a deadly, worldwide flu epidemic.

Miami’s first case was reported Sept. 18, the day students enrolled for the new term. According to historian Jim Blount in a 2006 Hamilton Journal-News article, “The campus suddenly had dozens with the flu and complications. On Oct. 3, 1918, university officials, in compliance with a state health edict, ordered the dismissal of 453 women students to their hometowns because of the epidemic.”

The 2020 graduate

Jeff Brown, Maddie’s father and Hilda’s grandson, finds the health crises 100 years apart perhaps ironic and certainly tragic.

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Hilda Mahler during her commencement  in 1920.

“First generation, first semester, Hilda got sent home because of the flu pandemic, and Maddie, the fourth generation, her last semester, they all got sent home because of a pandemic,” Jeff said. “That’s really bizarre.”

Jeff, from the Class of 1990 and a Miami Merger with Lisa Eggleston Brown ’90, is dean of Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois. When Maddie was deciding on a college, both Illinois and Miami were on her list, but nowhere near the top. A visit to the Oxford campus changed Maddie’s mind.

Jeff was bursting with excitement when Maddie told him of her decision. This was where he, an economics major, and Lisa, who majored in sociology, earned a “world-class education as they grew into adulthood.” He fondly recalls their long walks together on Western and heading Uptown for Bruno’s pizza. He buys a slice nearly every time he’s back. And he’ll never forget all the studying he did in King Library.

Maddie, who majored in film studies and American studies, loves the community feel on campus and Uptown. She said Inside Hollywood was probably her best experience. She minored in economics, but she didn’t love it nearly as much as her dad.

“It’s a lucky coincidence that I’m graduating a hundred years later,” she said. “It’s cool that four generations of my family have gone here.”

Campus in the 1950s

In Jeff’s parents’ day, couples headed to Tuffy’s to share a toasted roll and a Coke, when they could afford it. After all, it cost a quarter, but that did include ice cream.

Still living in Hamilton today, where they grew up, Miami Merger Ann Hammel Brown ’60 and Melvin Brown ’59 MAT ’60 have enjoyed returning to the Oxford campus to visit their granddaughter during her four years of study.

During one of their visits, the Beta Bells were ringing as Ann stepped out of the car.

“It’s exciting to still hear that,” she said.

Of course, there have been some changes on campus, too. Melvin, a social studies teacher retired from Princeton City Schools, recalls going to class in gloomy Harrison Hall with its dark woodwork and worn steps. That would have been the old Harrison Hall, Miami’s first classroom building, which was torn down while Melvin was in school.

“It had a lot of history in it,” Melvin said. “Whenever I was in that hall, I would think about all that had gone through there.”

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The three cousins graduating from Miami this weekend: (back to front) Maddie Brown and sisters Kendra and Charissa Laytart.

Only the beginning

Maddie’s two cousins, Kendra and Charissa Laytart of Fairfield, Ohio, are also graduating from Miami this weekend. Yes, their mom, Melanie Brown Laytart, is a graduate, Class of 1986. So is Melanie and Jeff’s brother, Greg. Honestly, you’d need a chart to figure out all the Miami graduates in this family. Jeff estimates they’re at 16 or so if you include his in-laws’ side.

Maddie actually finished her classes in January and started a job with Wayfair in Boston only a few days before offices were closed and employees started working from home.

She was looking forward to returning to Oxford to enjoy “one last hurrah” with her friends, sorority sisters, and family during commencement weekend. (Miami is celebrating May commencement in a virtual ceremony.)

To ease her disappointment, her dad put together a surprise ceremony in their Champaign, Ill., home, complete with full academic regalia. He knows it’s not the same, even though it did include Maddie "marching" up the driveway in her gown and holding her new Cavapoo puppy, Theo. They tried.

“Not having an on-campus graduation ceremony is a loss,” Jeff said. “It’s such a transition in a young person’s life. You grew up your whole life seeing people celebrate graduations.

On the bright side, he pointed out, commencement is only the beginning of the Miami alumni experience.

“There will be other opportunities. You’re part of the Miami family for life. You’ll go back to campus and find ways to celebrate, and you’ll stay in contact with friends.”