As a graduate of BC’s degree-completion program for working adults, Mills has been pursuing a calling and following a passion to serve the public most of his life. His long distance run on the Yellow Brick Road was just one part of his trek as an innovative learner. And learning, Mills said, is something he always tries to do, “not just to get a promotion, but because it makes you a better person.”
“I was always interested in public service,” said Mills, whose brother is a firefighter with 30 years of service and father the personnel coordinator for the City of Salem. “While I was growing up, I had a neighbor who was in law enforcement and was a sergeant major in the Marine Reserves. I met him when I was around seven, and I was enamored with the military, and this man recognized something in me.”
After high school, Mills earned an associate’s degree in administrative justice from Virginia Western Community College after encouragement from his military and law enforcement mentor and friend down the street. Later, he landed a job as a corrections officer in the Roanoke (VA) Jail, while also attending training at Cardinal Regional Criminal Justice Academy, a program he finished ahead of schedule.
“I kept going (learning), not because I wanted that degree or piece of paper, but because I wanted to learn more, to know how to be a better officer and to be more equipped to serve the public,” Mills said. “The learning also makes you a better person.”
He earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Bluefield College in 1997 and went to work for the Salem (VA) Police Department a year later. He joined the force under Police Chief James R. Bryant, a long time public servant who also graduated from BC’s degree-completion program. In fact, after completing his studies in management, Bryant encouraged the college to add criminal justice to its degree-completion offerings
“Not many people knew about it, but the director of the program at that time came to me and asked what Bluefield could differently and how they could improve their program,” Bryant said. “I suggested that he put together a program for police officers. I’ve always been about education. Whenever someone comes to me expressing an interest in law enforcement, I always ask ‘Where are you with your education?'”
Bryant added that he learned the hard way. He admits he wasn’t a very good student in high school and “just gave it up and joined the Marines.” After his military service, he went to work for the City of Salem, where he says he realized he needed an education
“I had trouble writing up my reports and completing tasks, and I knew I’d better learn how to do it, because I wanted to do my job well,” Bryant said. “Between the local community college coming to the Police Department offering classes and finally attending Virginia Western, I earned my associate’s degree. It took me from ’69 to ’74 to earn it, but I wasn’t there just to get a degree, I needed the education!”
It was his bachelor’s degree from Bluefield College in 1996 that would help him earn the appointment to police chief that same year. He later graduated from the FBI’s National Academy.
“I’ve always encouraged my men not to just go through the motions of getting a degree,” Bryant said. “Learn from each other, and take that learning and apply it on the street or in the court systems.”
A lesson officer Mills took to heart. In fact, after earning his bachelor’s degree from BC, Mills completed graduate work in criminal justice at Radford University before later completing the FBI’s National Academy, all while working on the police force.
“I have encouraged people to learn and enjoy the process of learning,” said Mills, whose sister, Sara Mills Bell, also earned her bachelor’s degree from Bluefield College. “I know that when I look back that God was at work in my life from age seven when I first felt that desire for public service and was encouraged by my neighbor. My faith has helped me to complete what I have completed. I want to serve my community, and I want to share with others what I’ve learned. There is nothing else I’d rather do. As a matter of fact, I’d do it for free.”
Both Mills and Bryant exemplify Bluefield College’s quest to prepare innovative learners and transformational leaders, and while their lives may now be going in different directions, they are still much the same. On September 1, Mills was promoted to Patrol Division lieutenant for the Salem City Police, shortly after Chief Bryant announced his plans to retire from the force on November 1 after 43 years of service. His plans for retirement: spending time traveling with his wife and relaxing at home…just a couple doors down from his longtime friend, neighbor and protege, Joe Mills.