As state Sen. Peter Mills campaigned around Maine this spring in his ultimately unsuccessful bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, he inevitably ran into someone who would grasp his hand, break into a wide smile and say, “I had your mother for English.”

It was always clear that the former student regarded Kay Mills as an inspiration.

“Nobody came up to me and said, ‘Gee, I think I had your mother for English but I can’t quite remember,’ ” said Peter Mills said Tuesday from his office in Skowhegan. “Nobody went through her class without remembering her forever.”

Katherine “Kay” Louise Coffin Mills died Monday in Farmington at the age of 93. She left a legacy that is felt throughout Maine, in the notable public service of her children – Janet Mills is the state’s attorney general and Dora Anne Mills is its director of public health – and in the minds of hundreds of former students.

One of those is Mary Sirois of Wilton.

“She is the reason why I became a high school English teacher,” said Sirois, who retired recently after a 37-year career in education, the last nine years at Jay High School.

Sirois took a freshman English class with Kay Mills at Wilton Academy in 1964, and wound up in Mills’ classes in her sophomore, junior and senior years as well.

“She just had a vivacious personality,” Sirois said. “She exuded this enthusiasm in the classroom. She was so passionate that I became passionate about the subject. It didn’t matter if it was literature or grammar or compositions.”

Sirois started teaching at Wilton Academy before moving on to Mount Blue High in Farmington, where she and Mills were colleagues. (It was always “Mrs. Mills” for Sirois, who never could bring herself to call her Kay.)

Mills taught at Mount Blue from 1969 to 1991 before retiring as head of the English department. Earlier, she taught in Warren, South Paris and Gorham, and substituted in many other schools while raising five children.

After hearing Monday’s news, Sirois poked through her drawers and pulled out her mentor’s copy of “Moby Dick,” with some papers inserted. Sirois read Mills’ handwritten notes, then held the book over her heart.

“She not only gave me an appreciation for the written word, she made me love the printed word,” Sirois said. “She taught specific authors as if she had known them personally and had discussed with them whatever they had written.”

Born three years before women gained the right to vote, Kay Mills grew up in the Aroostook County town of Ashland. Her father farmed potatoes. Her mother taught piano.

She was her high school’s valedictorian and attended Ricker Junior College in Houlton, then completed her undergraduate degree at Colby College in Waterville in 1939. She earned a master’s degree in English from the University of Maine in 1972.

When she was 20, her family didn’t have enough money to send her back to college, so she spent a year at home on the farm.

“I remember her telling me how disappointing it was,” said Dora Anne Mills. “But in retrospect, how many 20-year-olds get to spend a year with their parents? It was the Depression, the potatoes weren’t selling, so they sang and read books and played cards and got to spend a lot of hours with their extended family.”

Peter Mills, whose father and grandfather also served in the Maine Senate, remembers his mother enlisting the four older children – Dora was born nearly eight years after Paul, who followed Peter, Janet and David – for household chores such as cooking and cleaning.

“Her attitude was that if we all pitched in, we could get it over with and get on to something more worthwhile, like reading books or helping kids with homework or teaching,” he said. “She was a real career person in a day and age when it was hard (for a woman) to be a career person.”

The three Mills sons became Republicans, the daughters became Democrats. Their father was a U.S. attorney, appointed first by Dwight Eisenhower and later by Richard Nixon. Their mother campaigned for Margaret Chase Smith. Politics and current events were frequent topics of conversation at the dinner table.

“Kay Mills was a wonderful woman who devoted her time and energy to many causes, especially education,” wrote U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in a statement released Tuesday. “She inspired her children to achieve great accomplishments, and she instilled in them a great love of public service.”

In 1975, with her siblings grown and her parents recently divorced, 15-year-old Dora took a cross-country bus trip with her mother.

Initially mortified, she came to love the adventure, playing cards and reading books with her mom in the back of a bus, visiting the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, cities and deserts and historical sites. They took the southern route out and the northern route back.

“In some ways, it was a journey symbolic of her life,” she said. “She gave us both a sense of roots and a lust for the journey. She gave us those roots and those wings, and we’re very grateful for that.”

 

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: [email protected]