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Modern TV alcove memorializes founder, Army booster T.J. Mills

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Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2008 12:00 pm | Updated: 5:08 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Don Bolding

Killeen Daily Herald

Tommy Joe Mills may have been better known as an advocate of Fort Hood, arguably its greatest local civilian friend, than as the owner of the downtown landmark Modern TV & Appliance, but his own "pentagon" was an upstairs office in the appliance store that comparatively few people saw.

On its walls and on the walls of the narrow staircase leading to it, though, were hundreds of awards, pictures of generals and unit coins showered on him since he developed an interest in making and keeping Fort Hood a two-division post in the late 1960s, about a decade after he, his father and others founded the appliance store at 315 E. Avenue C.

The store remains at its original location, although expanded many times over, now under the direction of "T.J"'s son, Billy Jay Mills.

All the accolades got to looking lonely after T.J.'s death in May of this year, so about a month ago, Billy Jay, his family and store staff moved his desk and all the awards and pictures to an alcove in the center of the store.

In front of the desk are a table and chairs that Billy Jay hopes local leaders will use for conferences and meetings from time to time. The whole tableau has the look of a small museum commemorating a former era when downtown Killeen was the center of the town's activity.

Among the memorabilia are signed photos of three consecutive Democratic congressmen: 42-year veteran Bob Poage, Marvin Leath and incumbent Chet Edwards of Waco.

Poage and Leath represented District 11 when it included Bell County before redistricting several years ago. Edwards represents Waco but not Killeen, but he and T.J. maintained a close relationship. T.J. was Leath's campaign chairman.

"We wanted to get the pictures and documents in nicer frames," said Billy Jay.

He said no public dedication ceremony is planned but that the family will probably have refreshments for invited guests when the Army celebrates the renaming of Hood Road on Fort Hood as T.J. Mills Boulevard.

Fort Hood's main gate has also been named Bernie Beck Gate in honor of the longtime Union State Bank leader and Fort Hood supporter.

Billy Jay recalled that long ago, his father looked out the store's front window at what was then the Masonic lodge across the street and saw Bernice "Bernie" Beck, Roy J. Smith and other local leaders going in and out. His curiosity was the beginning of his ascendancy in civic life.

T.J. won the Roy J. Smith Award from the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce in 1984. The award, of which Smith was the first recipient, is the chamber's highest annual honor. The elder Mills was president of the Association of the United States Army twice and civilian aide for this area to the Secretary of the Army. He held the James I. King AUSA award.

At Leath's urging to make his name known to improve his effectiveness, he and Beck started hosting an annual Texas Shindig with barbecue by Temple restaurateur Clem Mikeska, and this year would have been the 30th, Billy Jay said. Invitations always went out on brown paper sacks.

"He would walk through the halls of the Capitol and greet everybody with 'How's your mama and them?'" Billy Jay said. "People would come out of their offices to greet him."

He recalled that the State Department called T.J. to host 40 Russian officials visiting Fort Hood when the Berlin Wall came down.

"He had them out to his house, the only private residence they visited," he said. "They marveled at the size of the refrigerator. He told them the jalapenos on the relish tray were sweet pickles, and so they got introduced to Texas culture.

"He always told people to call him T.J.," he said. "He told them that if they called him Mr. Mills, it meant that either they didn't know him or they didn't like him."

The collections on display include more than 100 military coins and pictures of more than 80 generals. Billy Jay knows the names of all but the first three, which T.J. got when he was too young to understand what was going on.

Also on the wall is a photo of T.J.'s wife, Lawanna, the high school sweetheart he married in 1949. She died when she was 55. Mills was 78 when he died.

Bill Turner, T.J.'s business partner and brother-in-law, said at his funeral, "Tommy Joe's been involved in so many things, helped so many people through the years. He was a true friend to me. He is a one-of-a-kind guy who did so much behind the scenes and never took credit."

The credit found its way to him, anyway.

Contact Don Bolding at dbolding@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7557.

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