Miami Middletown shows many that college is not out of reach

Miami Middletown, the state’s first regional college campus, celebrating 50 years.

“We will be opening this autumn branch campuses in Lima, and Mansfield, and Chillicothe, and a little bit later, in Portsmouth, John D. Millett said 50 years ago. “But this is the first one, and it’s the largest one.”

The campus, which last month officially became Miami University Regionals’ Middletown Campus, has made a large difference in the lives of area residents who otherwise would not have afforded college.

One family helped by the campus was that of Middletown High School 1970 graduate Les Landen, one of five children in a family of modest means.

“I am always anxious to remind people that the availability of that campus is the reason I’m where I am,” said Landen, 63, the city of Middletown’s law director. “Otherwise, who knows what I would have ended up doing. Because it would have been very difficult in those times to complete my college education.”

Opening of the campus in Middletown was a significant step toward then-Gov. James A. Rhodes’ goal of building a college campus within 30 miles of every Ohio resident. A recent University of Wisconsin-Madison study demonstrated the wisdom of that effort: It found 57.4 percent of incoming college freshmen attending public four-year colleges enroll within 50 miles of their permanent homes.

Money was tight for the large family led by a machinist in those days, according to Landen.

“For four of us to be able to get through college is amazing, and I just don’t think that happens without Miami University Middletown,” Landen said.

“That campus was very friendly for a family like ours,” he said. “It was a financial battle as it was, with what I had available. Without it, I don’t know that I would have ever gotten through college. And it wasn’t just me, it was a lot of people like me.”

“This was the early 1970s, keep in mind, but the fact of the matter was that for $750 a year, I could go to college,” Landen added. “It was like $250 a quarter back then, and that was a full-time student, and then all I had to do was come up with enough money for my books.”

At other area schools, “You were looking at spending somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000 a year at a minimum, and I couldn’t afford to do that,” Landen said.

The campus will celebrate its Golden Anniversary throughout this school year, beginning with a Kick-Off Celebration on Sept. 3 (a Saturday) from noon to 4 p.m. in the center of campus. There will be a free kids’ zone, food trucks, unveiling of a time capsule that will be opened in 50 years, bands playing, with K-99.1 FM broadcasting from the campus through the afternoon. A half-hour 50th anniversary ceremony will happen at 2:30 p.m.

The day’s events are open to the entire community, as a thank you for its generosity, which happened from the start. Armco Steel donated 127 acres (valued at $375,000) for the campus in 1963, and rather than donating the $1 million of local funds needed to launch the campus, the community actually put forward $1.5 million. Another $1.2 million came from federal funds, with $1 million from the state.

“We have a whole year of events — historical events, but also events to capture and archive memories and to engage with both our alumni community and also the community that has helped us become who we are,” said university spokesman Brennan Burks. “We think it’s a wonderful year to celebrate not only our past, but also moving forward.”

The campus is expected to have as many as 1,800 students enrolled this school year.

Middletown Schools Superintendent Sam Ison said the Middletown campus has helped the school district in many ways.

High school students take college credit classes there, have mentors from the campus, and ultimately go to college there in significant numbers, according to Ison.

“When we started the campaign for building a new middle school and renovating the high school, I said, ‘Imagine this: At the corner of Breiel and Manchester, we’re going to have, starting in 2018-19, 7th through 12th graders, and across the street, you’ve got college.’ It’s just an ideal setting,” he said.

More Middletown High School students attend Miami’s Middletown campus than any other college. The Class of 2014 sent 64 students there. The next most popular location for students was Sinclair Community College, with 20.

“We have just a great respect for what the regional campus is doing and its value to our community of Middletown, but most importantly, to our kids, which in turn does help our community all around,” Ison said.

Landen said the campus has also had a big cultural impact on the city. He got to see some of that first-hand as a work-study job doing technical work for performances at Finkelman Auditorium, which through the decades has hosted such artists, entertainers and lecturers as Dizzy Gillespie, Vincent Price, Leonard Nimoy, the Moscow Ballet, Goo Goo Dolls, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

“Some of the people who spoke there were pretty amazing, for Middletown, Ohio,” Landen said. ”We’re not a tiny community, but we’re still only 50,000 people,” he said.

“One of the places where I spent a lot of time was at Finkelman Auditorium, because one of the things Miami did for me is they gave me a job, on the work-study program,” said Landen, who also worked summers as a park director at Middletown’s Sherman Park and was a laborer at a local steel mill to pay for his schooling.

“The biggest impact that I see that the Middletown campus had was it took people like me, who didn’t really have the finances to go off to school someplace, and allowed me to raise enough money during the summer to pay tuition and buy books, and live at home with my parents and go to college,” Landen said. “And that was huge.”

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