Planning commission's rocket scientist retires

By HASKEL BURNS,

It’s not often that many counties can claim an actual rocket scientist in their ranks, but John Mills is Lamar County’s exception to that.

Mills, who recently retired after a six-year stint with the Lamar County Planning Commission, began his career with the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1962. During his time with McDonnell, Mills worked on NASA’s Mercury program, helping to design a single-person spacecraft for astronauts – including Alan Shepard and John Glenn – to orbit and return safely to Earth.

Mills then worked on the Gemini program, which employed a two-man vehicle that held astronauts including Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin in space, allowing scientists to record data to determine the effects of space on astronauts and equipment.

“I always liked chemistry when I was in high school, so I went to a teacher’s college, and I wanted to teach chemistry when I got out,” said Mills, who lives in the Cumberland subdivision with his wife, Lois. “But the space program opened up, and I said ‘Oh yeah, that sounds like me.’

“We did the chemistry, we built the parts, we designed them to take the conditions they were going to see – either the strength load, or the flexibility, or the high heat. So here’s what the environment’s going to be – you’ve got to find a material to not only meet that, but have some safety factor on top of that.”

 

In 1975, Mills began work at the Martin Marietta Corporation’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where he made external fuel tanks for NASA’s Space Shuttle program. While working on the Lockheed Martin Space Shuttle, part of his work involved designing heat shields that would be used for safe re-entry to Earth as well as to protect engines on commercial jets.

Mills would later be honored by Lockheed Martin with an award in Management Excellence, which is only bestowed to 10 employees out of 80,000.

The Mills moved from Slidell, Louisiana, to Hattiesburg in 1997, after making a list of possible retirement locations.

“We had a chart of ‘must-haves’ and ‘like-to-haves,”’ Mills said. “Hattiesburg, Mississippi had more (of those) than any other cities we’d visited.

“You can get in your car and drive down to the airport on the Coast – you can go to Dallas, Atlanta, or anywhere in the world. It has a college, music, really good health facilities. There’s no crime, no drunks and rabble-rousers and that kind of stuff.”

After moving to Hattiesburg, Mills got connected with the Area Development Partnership, where he recruited retirees to the city.

“The approach was, we wanted to reach the people up north that by now, had probably had enough snow and ice,” he said. “Their kids are gone, they’ve got grandkids, and now they want to spend a little bit of time where the weather’s nicer most of the time.

“They’d take out advertisements in the vacation magazines, where they had little coupons with a phone number on it. So what Lois and I basically did was on Thursday nights, any of those coupons that came back, we’d call the people and talk to them in person … and get them to plan one of their stops in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We’ll pick you up, take you to lunch, show you the golf courses, show you the fishing spots and the college.”

Mills came on with the Lamar County Planning Commission in 2012 after meeting District 4 Supervisor Phillip Carlisle.

“We were sitting on the front porch … and he was handing out cards, saying he’s running for (supervisor),” Mills said. “So we had a nice talk, and I voted for him, and the next thing you know he calls me up and says, ‘How would you like to be my preview guy?’

“He’s been very good to me – just always very thankful. And my desire was to know what was going on in the county – who’s changing what, and why do they want this law or that law changed.”

Mills also participated in the founding of Holy Cross Lutheran Church of Hattiesburg on Old Highway 11, after serving at St. John Lutheran Church on Hardy Street.

“We just thought that since we’d been here, everybody had been moving west,” Mills said. “So we just thought we ought to have a Lutheran church out here in the west.”

In his time in Hattiesburg, Mills also has taught classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Mississippi – where he served as president for a short time – and still serves as a leader in his subdivision’s homeowners association. For the last 11 years, John and Lois also have volunteered at Merit Health Wesley, where for the first 10 years they would visit patients with a cart filled with snacks, lemonade and iced tea.

Although they don’t do the cart anymore, the Mills still make it a point to volunteer at the hospital.

To honor Mills’ work with the county – and his accomplishments throughout his career – Carlisle issued him a proclamation at last week’s board of supervisors meeting.

“I always said if I ever have an appointee that’s a rocket scientist, I’m going to tell people about it,” Carlisle said. 

PREP SPORTS: