Two special lunch guests and a small entourage visited Billy Mills Middle School on Tuesday. Billy Mills himself, and his wife, Patricia, greeted students and educators at the Lawrence school named after the Olympic gold medalist.
In a short speech, Mills humbly told students nibbling on their lunches that one of them could give him a great honor someday. By gleaning inspiration from their educators, community and alumni and going on to “accomplish incredible things,” he said one of them, too, could have the school renamed after them.
“Records are made to be broken, such as buildings are made to be renamed, in honor of people who achieve dreams, who inspire the community.”
Mills, Oglala Lakota (Sioux), grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He surprised the world with his stunning, come-from-behind gold-medal and world-record win in the 10,000-meter race in 1964 at the Tokyo Olympics.
Principal Andrew Taylor described the moment he and Mills finally met face to face after two years of communicating virtually and by phone. He described it as “surreal.”
“His accomplishment was great, but it’s more about what he stands for and the person he is and the example he sets for the kids. It’s not as much about the Olympics as it is about the man,” Taylor said. “The kids are just kind of drawn to him.”
An author, philanthropist and motivational speaker, too, Mills spoke with students and educators. Many waited in line for a photo, including seventh-grader Shawnzjay Collins and friends.
“It was cool to meet someone my school was named after. I didn’t expect him to come, and I was actually pretty excited to see him.”
Eighth-grader Keegan Tuell asked Mills for an autograph. While Mills signed the piece of paper, he asked Keegan whether they shared a love of reading.
“I like poetry,” Keegan replied.
Mills told another student to keep reading.
“Because the world needs people like you for democracy to survive. They need to hear your voice. It’s a big responsibility.”
While the crowd snapped photos, Mills stood in front of a mural by Isaiah Stewart, Oglala Lakota and Mohawk. The mural features various stages of Mills’ life. It was commissioned via a fundraising effort after the Lawrence school board voted unanimously in 2018 to change the school’s name from South to Billy Mills Middle School. The proposed name change was led by district families and Native American leaders, including Steve Cadue and Carole Cadue-Blackwood (both Kickapoo). Cadue-Blackwood was elected to the school board the next year.
The move proved historic as it became the first public school in the United States to be named after a Native American public figure. The change coincided with the school’s 50th anniversary and also serves as an acknowledgment of Haskell’s land gift of the campus, where students also attend Broken Arrow Elementary.
Mills, 83, faced many challenges during his formative years. Born into poverty, he lost both of his parents before he reached his teens. Also known by his Lakota name, Tamakoce Te’Hila, he came to the Haskell Institute — then a residential boarding school — and fell in love with running.
Mills earned a scholarship at KU. At Mt. Oread he found another love: Patricia, an artist. They married in 1962, raised four daughters and live in California. Mills also served as an officer in the United States Marine Corps.
On Tuesday, Patricia remained close by as she has for the last six decades. When her husband won the gold in Japan, she watched from the stands.
The school gifted the pair matching T-shirts that read “Billy Mills Middle School.” They proudly held them up as they posed for another photo.
The Millses visited Lawrence this week for an award presentation. At the Kansas Union on Monday night, Mills received the Lifetime Achievement Award, according to a news release from KU Athletics. He was named All-America cross country runner three times, and he won the 1960 Big Eight Championship. He was also a member of the KU track team that won back-to-back NCAA Outdoor National Championships in 1959-60. Mills was inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame and has received numerous awards, including the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Barack Obama in 2012.
Mills remains the only American to win gold in the Olympic 10,000-meter, although his winning world-record time has since been bested. The 1983 film “Running Brave” chronicles the pain and bigotry Mills faced on his journey to the gold. Mills has been open about the racism he experienced in Lawrence as well as dealing with depression and thoughts of suicide, which were exacerbated by undiagnosed hypoglycemia and Type 2 diabetes.
Mills co-founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth in 1986 with a goal of giving back to Native communities. Representing the nonprofit, the Millses have traveled the country talking to Native American youth while encouraging healthy lifestyles and pride in their heritage.
Projects range from providing clean water to residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to “dozens of Native communities in more than 30 states with focus areas including critical needs, organic gardens and food, culture and language preservation, emergency assistance, schools and youth support, and seasonal programs,” according to the organization’s website.
In October 2020, Mills addressed the students and educators at BMMS virtually. He told viewers he had traveled to 111 countries, which helped him see unity through diversity. He also shared a life goal: to reach 100 years old.