Richard Arlen Mills, 88, joined his Heavenly Father on Wednesday, November 2nd, 2022.
He is survived by his wife, Susan Mills; daughter, Vicky Mitchell (Michael); sons, Matthew Mills (Jenna) and Justin Mills (fiancé Becca). He was truly loved by his three grandchildren, Ryan Johnson (Nicole), Keith Johnson (Melissa) and Kason Mills; nine great-grandchildren, Alexis Dial, Caden Johnson, Taryn Dial, Kylee Johnson, Noah Johnson, Isaac Johnson, Eli Johnson, Katherine Johnson and Samuel Johnson; two sisters, Shirley Fowler and Sherry Duncan (Bill) and brother, Rickey Mills (Kim).
He was preceded in death by his parents; son, Richard D. Mills; sisters, Roberta Weber and Joyce Barksdale; brothers, Charles Mills and Lloyd Mills.
He was born November 16, 1933 in Grand Tower, Illinois. His father, Avery Richard Mills, was a master mechanic and was an indispensable member of crews that helped build the great highways for this country in the first half of the last century. That skill meant that the Mills family followed where those roads were being built. It also meant his mother Irene was left alone to raise his sisters and brothers over most of the time he was growing up. They were seldom in any town long enough to establish anything that might resemble roots. He was in and out of dozens of elementary schools. It’s hard to establish educational continuity under such circumstances. He liked math, reading, and history but didn’t really get a chance to dig in on any of those subjects. Not that he ever complained about it, but Richard went from town to town as an outsider.
As the family moved from place to place, he developed a sense of confidence. He learned not to worry about things that were beyond his control, but to work towards the things he wanted.
The closest thing he had to a hometown was Onaga, Kansas, arriving when he was in fourth grade. But his parents split up there, and he felt a great need to provide for himself. By the time he was 12, he spent long portions of his summers working on farms. Having an early growth spurt, he began joining his dad’s construction crews by age 13. For all intents and purposes, he dropped out of school by 7th grade. He followed work opportunities to Topeka riding in the back of a mail truck from Onaga when he was 14. He worked construction all over the state as a 15-year-old. He was self-sufficient.
A construction job near McPherson set him on a path to meet Carrol Gustafson when they were both 16. She was from an established family, so dating was difficult enough that they eloped shortly after his 17th birthday in December 1950. Carrol was just 16.
Carrol and Richard moved to Topeka a few months later. Their first child, Vicky, was born in September 1951. The young couple worked a variety of jobs to feed their young family. A son, Richard Duane, was born in 1953. They were very, very busy, but they loved being parents.
Richard always wanted to be a policeman. As he saw it, he could help people avoid doing things that would get them arrested through work as a police officer. It was an idea that intrigued him. He could make a positive difference in a setting that many see as imposing punishment. It was a theme he followed throughout his working life.
He also knew he’d first need to graduate from high school to even be considered for such a position. So he took and passed his GED exam. In 1960 he joined the Topeka Police Force.
He served in a number of capacities. For a time, he was a K-9 patrolman. He took what looked to be a career advancement to join the Kansas Highway Patrol, but he was miserable sitting in a car on a highway. He longed for the human interaction that gave his work so much meaning. So he moved back to Topeka and was welcomed by the Police force with open arms.
He was an innovative thinker and was always seeking to improve lives with proactive solutions. When student unrest reached the public school system, he proposed that schools hire a staff of security personnel to help ensure student safety. The Topeka Public School District 501 hired him to direct a program of security and safety. It was 1968, the year Martin Luther King and RFK were assassinated. Viet Nam protests were everywhere. This was the right program at the right time. Richard was a lifelong Democrat, and the party asked him to run for Shawnee County sheriff in 1970. In a heavily Republican (at that time) county, he came within a couple of hundred votes of winning. He continued directing school security programs until 1972.
He turned 40 in 1973, and his expertise in corrections began to be tapped on a number of administrative levels. He was Director of Jail Administration and later Jail Services for Shawnee County, even serving as the first jail services chaplain. Then he moved first to be assistant and then Director of County Court services before becoming Shawnee County Director of Corrections from 1980-83.
While his professional life was blossoming, his marriage to Carrol ended in divorce in 1979. They were headed in different directions. The split up was painful for Richard.
He was a lifelong learner, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Washburn University. He continually sought to learn about new ideas and attended as many training courses as he could to expand his ability to help others. Remarkable for a 7th-grade dropout.
His work with prisoners and correctional facilities made him determined to focus his attention on trying to make incarceration a positive experience. He continuously pushed to provide access for educational and vocational training for prisoners. He insisted on treating them with respect and dignity. He sought out businesses that would partner with taking qualified offenders into their workplaces so they’d be able to truly have a new start after they paid their debt to society.
As all this was going on, he met Susan Mercer in 1980. Susan was completing a criminal justice degree at Washburn that started at Kansas State. Although there was a bit of an age difference, they shared an absolute passion for providing avenues back to a productive role in society for prisoners. Shared work led to mutual admiration and attraction. They were married on March 17th, 1984.
Richard’s public career really took off during this time. He was appointed by Governor John Carlin as the Deputy Secretary of Corrections for the State of Kansas in 1983. He became Secretary of Corrections for Kansas in 1985 and served three years, directing all administrative activities related to the department’s operations.
It was a huge responsibility that included administrative planning and organization, budget and program development, and capital-building initiatives through the legislative process. He was a member of the governor’s cabinet and a member of a number of committees. Over 2,000 employees reported to him and he managed a budget of over $100 million.
While he was Secretary of Corrections, he was able to develop friendships and have important discussions with leaders from a variety of fields in his search to help prisoners. He consulted with Dr. Robert Menninger, trying to find ways to develop programs that would instill hope for inmates. They developed a real camaraderie.
After leaving public service, he became President of the Westridge Group of Associates, a Topeka-based criminal justice consulting firm. Among Westridge’s most important initiatives was to help implement a number of regional juvenile detention facilities in Kansas. Education was always a key component of these new programs. He was a pioneer in privatization of correctional services.
Later he was a Senior Associate for the Correctional Services Group of Kansas City. Dealing with facility planning and design, staff training and transitioning planning and implementation. Over the years, he focused on the entire start-to-finish correctional experience.
He was constantly on call as an instructor. For the Police Academy and the Highway Patrol to the Kansas Supreme Court. He was a guest instructor at Washburn University and Johnson County Community College. He was an advisor to friends and legislators, mayors, and governors. All the while maintaining an air of humble cheer.
He sat on advisory boards for many organizations that seek to help others. He provided resources for those facing troubles with addiction and with spousal abuse. He had a particularly soft spot in his heart for young people. But he also worked to create programs that served adults as they tried to rebuild their lives.
He was a member of Kiwanis, Eagles Club and Berryton United Methodist Church. There were so many other organizations he lent his creativity too.
The last ten years of his career was spent as Vice President for Operations for the GRW Corporation of Brentwood, Tennessee. GRW concentrated its activities on private correctional management. The themes were constant. Since real people are being housed for specific periods of time, how can you house, train, and make them believe they can function successfully in the real world? It drove Richard to continuously look for a better, more humane way to treat the people he was charged with helping. It was an honorable calling.
Susan and Richard had two sons, Matthew and Justin. They filled his last years with joy. He wasn’t far past childhood himself when he first became a parent. He loved Vicky and Richard, and they loved him but he was struggling just to make a way not just for them. In those days he worked as many as five jobs. There simply wasn’t much time to spend with them.
“I was truly a Daddy’s girl,” Vicky recalled. “We had a special bond and I never wanted do anything that might disappoint him. He was the daddy that every little girl would have wanted to have.”
When Matt was born he was able to involve himself in all the things he missed with his older children. He was able to attend all the school activities that are so important. Matt recalled once when he was in first or second grade, and his Dad was working out of town, he flew back just to be part of a short school program. He coached teams. He never missed one of Matt’s games.
“I may not have been the best player, but my Dad always made me feel I was,” Matt said.
Matt recalls three important things he gave him. First, was his constant dedication. Second was an ornery playfulness in all sorts of happy memories. Third, was a big, open, always present heart.
Justin was born ten years later, and Richard was able to devote even more time to him. He retired when he was 72. Once when Justin was hospitalized with a respiratory infection, Richard never left his side. When the medical staff tried to take Justin for an exam, Richard would have none of it. He told the staff, “Where he goes, I go.” And that was the way it went until last Wednesday. They went to games and shows and to wherever else was important. They talked on the phone nearly every day. They were exceptionally close.
“He was my best friend,” Justin said. “I’ll miss him terribly, but I am so grateful for the time we had and for the message of integrity and his example of how to treat people as I go forward.”
Along the way, Richard taught his sons integrity, compassion, the value of being truthful, the rewards of hard work, and how to treat a wife, a colleague, and anyone you interact with. He was quick to quote appropriate scripture for them, to offer advice and support with whom he interacted. He showed them what’s important in life.
Richard was always tremendously honored to be the father of Vicky, Richard, Matthew and Justin.
As Susan continued with her career, Richard actively participated in her work. He’d read books or articles that were critical to the projects she was working on and make notes that would be helpful to her. That passion for helping the most vulnerable was still there for both of them.
“We always loved to dance, to go to where there was a band,” Susan said. He had a love for life and really enjoyed being out with people and having fun.
In 1989, the Democrat party asked that he run for state senator from our district. He didn’t have much of a chance, but he went out and campaigned, knocked on doors, and met all kinds of people. He didn’t win, there weren’t that many Democrats then, but he didn’t take the loss too hard. He talked about how much he enjoyed meeting people and talking about their concerns. That was just the type of person he was. Meeting people energized him.
“We recently had dinner with all of his grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. It was truly a joy. The youngest, Matt and Jenna’s son Kason, was just a couple of months old. Richard loved the opportunities to cuddle with him and to tell him how special he was.”
In this last week, so many people have told Susan, Vicky, Matt, and Justin just how much of a positive impact Richard made in their lives. Those expressions have helped temper the family’s sorrow. He loved his Lord and his family and those who helped make his life so special. If he were here today, he’d be telling you how much you meant to him.
A Celebration of Richard's Life will be held at 2:00 pm, Saturday, November 19, 2022 at Berryton United Methodist Church, 7010 SE Berryton Rd., Berryton, KS.
Memorial contributions may be made to Berryton United Methodist Church. The congregation supports Topeka JUMP for Justice and Harvesters Community Network.
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