As early as the 1940s, college classes were held in Ruidoso. State and private institutions from across the country looked to the area to establish campuses here. A county-wide survey was conducted in 1983 by Eastern New Mexico University. The results confirmed that the residents of the county wanted a local college that would offer both academic classes and vocational training. NMSU jumped on these results and established a college program at Ruidoso High School. The program closed after eighteen months. A more specific survey aimed at the Ruidoso area was conducted in 1989. Several local organizations including the Ruidoso Board of Education, Ruidoso Rotary Club and local ENMU alumni, secured a commitment from ENMU to establish an off-campus center in Ruidoso. Eastern was eager and understood the political and economic intricacies of expansion, having established other campuses in Lovington, Roswell and Clovis.
Initial funding was secured through the legislature with assistance from State Representative John Underwood. Community efforts culminated in a mil levy passing in a three-to-one favorable vote. The growing impetus for a new college resulted in another vote four years later to increase the mill levy from 1 to 2 mils. Voter approval rate for this hike passed by a 9-to-1 margin.
The attention soon shifted to hiring someone to take the reins and make the college a reality. The candidate would need to be cognizant of the unique challenges of starting a college from scratch, in a rural community, dominated by out-of-state and tourist, discretionary income and defined through its unique geography and cultural diversity. Funding, finding a building and the transient nature of the workforce would need to be addressed. Despite the obstacles, village leaders felt that, with the right leadership, the students would come.
Enter Dr. Jim Miller, Jr. As former superintendent of Carrizozo schools when the original survey was taking place, he had since moved to Farmington to take the superintendent job there. Dr. Miller was hired; moved back to the area, rolled up his sleeves and went to work.
First on his agenda was to find a campus location. Rather than purchasing land and constructing a new building, Miller rented an existing building that now houses Action Ski on Sudderth Drive. Two hundred and eighty three students registered for the first semester, and classes were held at night at various locations including Ruidoso High School and the Coronado Center. Community education classes like “Elk Bugling” were held in businesses like Wilton Howell’s garage (now Season’s Nursery) with Dr. Miller often sitting in as a student. No unoccupied space escaped Dr. Miller’s eyes; so much so, that when the Cree Fire broke out in 2001, classes and final exams were hurriedly re-assigned to the Sierra Mall and other buildings with little interruption. Despite his commitment to in-fill, a permanent campus was sorely needed, and, once again, Dr. Miller rolled up his sleeves.
The Dale Walthall family offered to donate their former True-Value hardware store at 709 Mechem Drive, and in late with financial help from ENMU 1994, ENMU-Ruidoso consolidated and partially moved to its new location. The centralized and open floor plan allowed for expansion that Dr. Miller parceled out in manageable portions. A set of classrooms were set aside for ITV classes a year later, allowing students in Ruidoso to obtain upper division and advanced degrees from ENMU via television. A computer lab was set up and additional computers were donated to Mescalero and senior citizen centers throughout the county for use by ENMU-Ruidoso college students.
Despite the newly-acquired location in Ruidoso, Dr. Miller made sure that ENMU-Ruidoso remained a presence in the rest of the county. Classes continued in businesses after hours in Capitan, Carrizozo, Corona and Mescalero. An adult literacy program was inherited from the Altrusa Club of Ruidoso in 1997. A GED program was set up a year later. Both of these programs allowed those who were not able to complete their high school education to obtain a high school equivalency diploma. Because of the difficulty of the tests and the fact that so many candidates have been out of school for extended periods of time, ENMU-Ruidoso required classes and preliminary tests through Adult Education before anyone can sit for the GED. As a result, Ruidoso has one of the highest passing rates in the state. Over half of area GED graduates go on to college. Some of these students quit school to join the military, others to help out on the family ranch or farm, still others to raise children. Regardless of the reason, hundreds of local residents are now pursing better jobs with a whole new attitude towards education. These students are special success stories for Dr. Miller. Without the College, their transformations would not be complete.
The tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds exemplifies Dr. Miller’s own attitudes towards life. He is still deeply involved in the community and with ENMU-Ruidoso. He organized the annual renewable energy conference held in April and has formed a consortium of private and government organizations to take advantage of biomass potential in Lincoln and Otero counties. He continues to teach for ENMU-Ruidoso Community Education. Even in retirement, Dr. Miller, sleeves rolled up, is ready to face new challenges while making Ruidoso the better for his vision and efforts.