Brodhead's Mary Milks leaves behind a legacy of music and quiet charity

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Monday, August 11, 2014

BRODHEAD—Even when she wasn't playing the piano, Mary Milks seemed to reverberate with joyful music.

Her cheerfulness was natural, the extension of the music that filled her home and the lives of the people around her.

“She looked like she was always singing in her head—or always playing music in her head,” said Jean Peterson, family friend and a former piano student of Milks.

On July 24, Mary Ten Eyck Milks died, leaving behind her family and generations of piano students who remember her for both her talent and her love. She takes with her, into the hereafter a complete knowledge of the Methodist hymnbook and the record of a quietly charitable life.

Milks was born in 1925 in the town of Spring Valley. She began playing piano when she was a toddler, and by age 5 was asking her brothers, “What song do you want to hear?”

Milks took lessons from Seraph Pierce in Brodhead, but had a natural talent that went far beyond what lessons could teach her.

She could hear pieces on the radio and replicate them on the piano.

“She could make them better,” said Jon Condon, one of her music students who later went on to be a band director in the Beloit School District.

Milks didn't consider going to college.

“I think it was because of the times,” said her daughter, Connie Sue Prochnow. “Her family lost the farm during the Depression, and she graduated from high school at the end of World War II.” 

More than that, Milks “didn't think of herself as something so different than others,” her daughter said.

Yes, music would open doors for her, but not the kind that led to a prestigious position.

After marrying Merritt “Putt” Milks, she began teaching piano lessons out of her home. Monday through Thursday afternoons after school and Saturday mornings, Milks listened to students laboring over the keys.

Condon remembers attending lessons after a week of studiously avoiding practice.

“A lot of time I was sight reading,” Condon said. “She'd say, 'Now Jon, you've got to do better than that.'”

But that was the extent of the rebuke, and teacher and student would then move on with the lesson.

He always left happy.

Condon said Milks' attitude helped him form his own teaching style.

“She was responsible for making me feel that, as a teacher, if you're not having fun, it's not worth doing,” Condon said. “It's got to be fun for the individual.”

Prochnow said her mother's style with deliberately “relational.”

“She did make a connection with her students,” Prochnow said. “She was intentional about that.”

Milks loved Brodhead, and demonstrated her affection with gift of music. 

Milks played at church, nursing homes, patriotic concerts and shows. She played for funerals, marriages, and christenings. 

She would sometimes be called upon to provide funeral music for families that couldn't afford it.

“She knew what music could do for those people,” said Peterson. “It's uplifting. It makes you feel that it's OK, that life will go on.”

Along with those public gestures, Milks had a quietly charitable side, too.

“If somebody was down and out, if they had lost their job, or were taking care of a family member, she would go to the Piggly Wiggly and get them a rotisserie chicken,” Prochnow said.

Comforting and practical, it was the perfect gift.

Prochnow also remembers her mother putting $5 in envelopes and sending them anonymously to whoever was in need.

Milks taught lessons for 49 years, and many times retained relationships for life.

Jean Peterson's daughter and granddaughter took lesson from Milks. Peterson became friends with Milks' daughter Peggy, and that cemented the connection. The relationship even survived the time the two girls put Tabasco sauce into Milks' coffee.

Colleen Turbyfill refers to her as “Mary the Magnificent.

“I remember she had a policy that you couldn't take lessons until you were 9 years old,” Turbyfill said. “I wanted to take piano lessons so bad I would go over to her house after school and listen to her give other people lessons.”

Lessons always included a song from the Methodist hymnbook.

Turbyfill took lessons from Milks from about 1968-74, when her family moved to Arizona.

Despite the distance the two kept in touch, and on trips to Wisconsin, Turbyfill would try to visit Milks.

“The last time, she was too sick to see me,” Turbyfill said. “But she left me a bag of piano music on the door.”


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