By Dave Miller
Fort Hood Herald
Longtime Killeen businessman and civic leader Tommy Joe Mills died at his home Saturday, surrounded by friends, after a long battle with cancer. He was 78.
Known for his straight talk and homespun humor, Mills was a fixture in downtown Killeen as co-owner of Modern TV & Appliance, a store he opened in 1957 with Bill Mills and Bill Turner.
The store on Avenue C, which underwent expansion and renovation last year, celebrated its 50th anniversary in December.
Bill Turner, who was not only Mills' business partner but also his brother-in-law, said Saturday, "This is very emotional for me. He has left a big hole in Killeen. ... Tommy Joe's been involved in so many things, helped so many people throughout 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."
Though Mills never served in the military, he was an ardent supporter of the Army and Fort Hood, working tirelessly through channels in Washington to bring needed projects and federal dollars to Central Texas.
In 1986, he was appointed as a Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army for North Texas. Later, he was appointed as civilian aide at-large and was currently serving as civilian aide emeritus.
Bill Shine, who succeeded Mills in the civilian aide's post, praised Mills' work on behalf of the Fort Hood community.
"T.J. and I served together as civilian aides to the Secretary of the Army for 12 years," Shine said. "I learned so much from T.J. during that time about caring for soldiers and their families. His only hobby was serving the Fort Hood community. T.J. Mills was my mentor and of most importance, he was my close, personal friend, and I will miss him very much."
III Corps and Fort Hood commander Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, reached in Washington, D.C., Saturday, praised Mills' commitment to the Army and Fort Hood.
"What T.J. has done for years for all our soldiers and families has been incredible," Odierno said.
"He's been a great friend to all our soldiers and their families. All the things that have been done at Fort Hood over the last 20 years, T.J. has had a hand in. The growth of Fort Hood and III Corps are in large part due to his efforts. More importantly, though, we have lost a great man and a great friend, and we will miss him."
U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, who worked closely with Mills on issues pertaining to Fort Hood, eulogized him in a statement Saturday:
"If Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to civilians who had gone above and beyond the call of duty in service to the U.S. Army, Tommy Joe Mills would deserve to be its first recipient.
"Tommy Joe Mills has done more for Fort Hood, its soldiers and families than anyone could ever imagine. For 12 years with Congressman Marvin Leath and for 18 years during my service in Congress, Tommy Joe has had his fingerprints on every major construction project at Fort Hood, including the III Corps headquarters, the Soldier Development Center, the Soldier Service Center and new housing and barracks, just to name a few.
"Tommy Joe loved the Army, and at its highest levels, the Army loved him. I will miss him greatly, because for the past 18 years, he has been my close personal friend and my tutor and mentor on Fort Hood and Army issues.
"For decades to come, every soldier and every Army family stationed at Fort Hood will be the beneficiary of Tommy Joe's deep commitment to a better quality of life for those who serve our nation."
Retired Lt. Gen. Pete Taylor, former III Corps and Fort Hood commander, echoed Odierno's sentiments, saying, "This is a tremendous loss to the community – he was not only a great leader but a great friend. He has contributed a lifetime to make sure that our soldiers at Fort Hood have the facilities they need and deserve. He was a great man and we'll miss him."
After traveling to Washington, D.C., on an Association of the United States Army trip in the early 1960s, Mills was introduced to the district's congressman, the late W.R. "Bob" Poage. He later helped with the campaign of Leath, Poage's successor, and was instrumental in advancing the candidacy of Leath's successor, Edwards. Over the years, these Capitol Hill connections proved vital to the interests of the Killeen-Fort Hood community.
It was through his longtime association with Edwards that Mills met Sam Murphey, Edwards' district director. Murphey, of Harker Heights, said Mills shaped his political life as well.
"I considered T.J. a mentor, a confidant, a close friend," Murphey said. "He was instrumental in my making the decision to get into the District 55 (state representative) race.
"He has made a huge impact on my life. He could talk to you and show you a solution, a clearer pathway.
"The beauty of T.J. Mills is he had a unique way of going to Washington and knowing who to talk to and getting lawmakers involved in the projects we got here. We have an enduring installation now, largely due to his efforts. We owe him a great debt."
Mills was born Nov. 17, 1929, to W.T. "Bill" and Oma Mills on a farm south of Killeen. After graduating from Avenue D School, he enrolled in trade school in Fort Worth.
He married his high school sweetheart, Lawanna, in 1949.
That same year he started a job at Killeen Electric, where he worked delivering and servicing appliances. Over the next nine years, he got his education in the appliance business, as he later said in his grandson's book, "Me and T.J.," which was published last year.
After borrowing family money, Mills purchased some appliance inventory and started Modern TV & Appliance in late 1957. His son, Billy Jay, joined him in operating the business in the early 1980s.
Mills, who sold a television to Elvis Presley when the singer was stationed at Fort Hood with the Army in 1958, endured the advent of big-box stores and maintained a successful business for five decades in the same downtown location where it started.
Tommy Wallace, senior vice president of First National Bank and a longtime friend, said Mills' emphasis on customer service was a large part of his success.
"Because of his attendance to personal service, he has been successful," Wallace said. "Your word was good for him. He didn't need things in writing. That's the way he did business."
As Mills told the Herald in 1989, "We try to trust everyone until they prove different to us."
Regarding Mills' contributions to the community, Wallace said, "How can you count the measure of Tommy Joe Mills when you look at what he has done for so many people? He was a giver. He never had to be asked if something needed to be done."
Marge Reinhardt, who met Mills in 1959 and worked as his personal secretary and head bookkeeper for more than 30 years, said, "It was truly a privilege and honor to work for him. He was an outstanding businessman and even more outstanding as a friend. Our friendship resulted in T.J.'s influencing my husband, Chuck Reinhardt, to open Zip Cleaners in 1967. T.J. will be missed by both of us."
Mills was heavily involved in civic affairs in the Killeen-Fort Hood area. He was a former executive director of the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce, former president of the Killeen Industrial Foundation, former chairman of the Downtown Killeen Reinvestment Zone, served two terms as president of the Association of the United States Army and served as a trustee on the boards of both the Killeen Independent School District and the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. He also served on several other boards and committees.
Mills was a past grand master of the Killeen Masonic Lodge and was a member of the Kiwanis Club and the Shriners.
In 1994, the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce presented Mills with the Roy J. Smith Award in recognition of his lifetime of community service.
Earlier this month, Mills was awarded the Lifetime Service Award by D.R. Horton Inc., for his efforts working with the homebuilding company.
Allen Cloud, a former Killeen mayor and longtime friend, said of Mills, "I have seen him open up doors in Washington and work on behalf of the Army and Killeen. His enthusiasm and determination were unmatched. He was always there plugging for our community."
"He was a great friend, a great Killeenite and great American – a kind and loving man who really cared for his community," Cloud said. "He was a treasure."
Funeral services were Tuesday at First Baptist Church, with the Rev. Merrill J. Luman and Dr. Randy Wallace officiating.
Memorials may be made to the First Baptist Church building fund.
Contact Dave Miller at email@example.com or (254) 501-7543.