Giving Impact: Marla Miller Smith | WMU Alumni Skip to main content

Giving Impact: Marla Miller Smith

In the 60’s, Marla Miller Smith (’66) was a featured twirler who received more than 250 twirling awards, including the Indiana State Fair Championship, and after graduating from high school, she brought her talent to Western Michigan University. Decades later, The Marla Miller Smith Bronco Marching Band Endowment would become the first endowment at WMU to provide long-term funding for the band, while preserving Marla’s legacy.

Marla was the featured twirler for the Bronco Marching Band for 1965 and 1966. After completing an associate’s degree in business, Marla went on to have a long career as a secretary, executive assistant, and eventually the office manager for a law firm. Her experience at WMU left her with a lifelong impression and passion for marching bands, which is why she decided to do something transformative for the Bronco Marching Band.

Unfortunately, Marla passed away before she could fulfill that wish, so her husband, Tony Smith, wanted to make the gift in her memory.

“Marla’s lifelong love was the marching band,” Tony said. “She knew firsthand that a lot of hardworking students were putting in many long hours for its success, and the lack of external support was frustrating to her because of this. Her gift will provide a foundation to build this financial support, so others can have the same experience that she cherished.”

The Marla Miller Smith Bronco Marching Band Endowment forever codifies Marla’s legacy as a twirler, WMU alumna, and career woman; while helping to create a sustainable foundation for the band. Because of her gift, generations of students can continue to benefit from the discipline, musicality, and leadership skills gained as a member of the band.

The $330,000 endowment will provide funds for the annual Marla Miller Smith Travel Game, so band members can travel with the football team, as well as Marla Miller Smith scholarships. It all fits into a larger plan to restructure the band to ensure long-term success.

Earlier this year, the WMU College of Fine Arts instituted the Bronco Marching Band Restructure and Sustainability Plan. It involved reducing the overall size of the band, establishing a travel band, creating an audition and selection process, and creating an essential studies course so band members can earn more credit and fulfill a requirement for graduation through band participation. The college also set a goal of raising $1.5 million while setting aside $50,000 in annual funds to provide small scholarships to every student, as well as essential band needs like instrument repair and uniforms. It doesn’t just make the band more sustainable, but helps to maintain the high quality for which the band is well known.

For Tony and his family, it fulfills Marla’s desire to provide a means for the band to be able to travel and represent the Broncos at events all across the state and country, as well as provide important scholarship funds to its hardworking members.

In late September, Marla’s family traveled to WMU to spend time with the Bronco Marching Band at a home football game. As tribute to, and gratitude for, Marla’s grand legacy, the post-game concert was dedicated in her honor, playing favorites like “Amazing Grace” and Bronco Marching Band staple, “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.”


Marla Miller Smith Twirler
Marla featured in a WMU Brown & Gold Yearbook


Tony Smith
Tony Smith along with daughter Dede Panarisi and grandson Bobby Panarisi with the Bronco Marching Band