Most of us have someone who impacted our lives in ways perhaps unknown until years later. Maybe for you that person was a teacher, a coach, or even an older relative.  For me, that person was Jim Mills.  Jim Mills is a name about as vanilla as mine (Kevin Williams…sheesh, there are a gazillion of those, including one who keeps getting arrested for DUI and people think it’s me, but that is a post for another day) and on the surface we had nothing in common.

  The Middletown Journal once did a feature story about me writing an article for a national magazine, a decent feat for a 17-year-old at the time.  Today, kids are writing whole books.  But back in 1989, such journalistic accomplishments were a bit more rare among the young.  After visiting The Journal newsroom and being interviewed by a reporter for the article about my article, I was ushered in to meet Jim Mills (always, “Mr. Mills” to me). After a little chit-chat he offered me a job as a “high school reporter”, chronicling events at our city’s high school.  I spent my senior year covering clubs, sports, students, features (it was a great way to pick up girls) and graduation. And after graduation, Mr. Mills offered me me a full-time paid internship. I happily retired from three summers of working at a local amusement park and joined The Journal.

Sometimes mentoring isn’t imposing rules and regimen but offering freedom and that’s what Mr. Mills gave me.  I knew nothing about journalism when I first stepped into the newsroom.  But he gave me a news reporter’s notebook, said “write” and set me free to search out stories.    During the summer of 1990 I covered council meetings (yawn), explored German Baptist settlements west of town, wrote obituaries, shadowed cops, worked the overnight shift, covered drownings, fires, and floods. In the span of 90 days I did it all. On the job I learned reporting skills, objectivity, and cultivated creativity.  He was 62, I was 17… He was a white-haired, chatty, old-school editor, a product of another era and he instilled those same journalistic values in me. We came from two totally different generations  but he believed in me enough to let me do my thing and for that I’ll always be grateful.

One of my favorite stories that I wrote that summer was a Sunday section feature about the tiny hamlet of West Elkton, Ohio.  I’m sure the village has changed little in the past 20 years since I first wrote about it.  It’s one of those sleepy no-traffic light towns where time seems frozen.  Ma & Pa’s General Store was the village’s focal point of activity and a group of farmers would gather every morning for coffee, Pa’s homemade biscuits and gravy, and lots of chatter.   Pa was a man named George, a colorful country character, who packed a gun behind the counter (“just in case someone tries to rob me, it’ll be their last robbery,” George said) and gave the store’s key to one of the farmers so he could open in case George was running late. I loved writing such folksy features.  The summer of 1990 at The Journal will probably go down as one of my happiest with its endless promise and fun features.

These were the waning days of the Golden Age of newspapers.  When the afternoon paper went to press the whole building shuddered as the giant, beastly metal press awoke from its nightly slumber and reporters would relax a bit, knowing deadline was done for another day.  And then we’d focus on the next batch of stories, it was exhilarating and fun and I’m grateful to Mr. Mills for giving me the opportunity to experience that.

I left The Journal in 2000 to pursue an ill-advised run for public office (absolutely a post for another time!:).  I visited the newspaper that summer for a “candidate interview” with the newspaper editorial board. I think that might have been the last time I ever saw Mr. Mills.  He retired from the newspaper business and moved to the West Coast. I always wanted to reconnect with him to tell him how much I appreciated him opening the door for me.  But I never got the chance, and Mr. Mills passed away last week.  So consider this the letter I would have sent.  Hopefully he’s reading this from a better place.  RIP and, thank you, Mr. Mills.

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