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Eugene M. Mills 73, Nyssa Oregon died Wednesday February 14, 2018 at his home in Nyssa. “In the end, it’s about the teaching, and what I always loved about coaching was the practices. Not the games, not the tournaments, not the alumni stuff. But teaching the players during practice was what coaching was all about to me.”
These words were once said by John Wooden, former head coach of the University of California, Los Angeles, who won 10 NCAA basketball championships in a 12-year span, including seven in a row, between 1964 and 1975. And those words were what Gene Mills represented throughout his life, said Kevin Purnell during a celebration of life ceremony Saturday for the late Adrian superintendent and long-time basketball coach. The ceremony took place at the basketball court that was dedicated to Mills on Feb. 8.
Gene Mills, 73, died Feb. 14 after a long battle with bone cancer. Adrian community members, teaching staff and individuals impacted by Mills filled up the gymnasium to celebrate the man’s life. There were 350 people who attended to show support for Mills and his family, with song and remembrance.
Shortly before close friends and family spoke, a slideshow of Mills’ life was shown highlighting the man’s life.
“He’d want us to move forward,” said Purnell, who is serving in an interim superintendent capacity, when he delivered his remarks to the packed crowd at Gene Mills Court.
Mills served the Adrian School District as superintendent and girls basketball coach for 14 years, but also with decades of coaching and administrative work that began in the 1970s with a teaching position in Long Creek.
During the ceremony, longtime friend Tom Hayes spoke to the audience, regaling about the memories he had of the Mills’ family since he first met Mills in 1974 in Union.
Mills graduated from the University of Oregon, and ended up serving the Adrian School District until his death; both share the same school colors: green and yellow.
“Nice way to go in, nice way to go out,” Hayes said, to a burst of laughter.
Hayes remembered just how fond Mills was of all of his family, including his children and grandchildren.
“He was a man who loved tight-knit communities, who loved small schools,” Hayes added.
Purnell remembered the times he would sit with the former superintendent on Monday mornings, where he would be required to listen to Mills’ analysis on the play of the Oregon Ducks — the good and the bad.
Mills moved around eastern Oregon throughout his career, between teaching and coaching basketball and football in Jordan Valley in the 1970s; to time spent in Union and John Day; a 15-year period of serving as principal of Cove High School; and a return to Jordan Valley as superintendent in the early 1990s before his eventual roles as a superintendent and coach in Adrian.
This point was reinforced when Purnell, during his remarks, had those who had been coached by Mills stand up: a majority of the audience did so.
Purnell described Mills as a man with a “love for life, a passion for people.”
He also described the late superintendent’s ability to teach “a gift from God,” whether that be in the classroom, on the track, on the field, or on the court.
Gene Mills’ son, Aaron, not only spoke, but played his acoustic guitar and sang lyrics from the Pearl Jam song, “Just Breathe.”
“His calling was to impact people,” Aaron Mills said, between sniffles. “Fifty years in education: how many kids is that?”
Daughter Jessica Mills also had brief remarks that touched upon a side of her father most may not have known: he was a Renaissance man.
She recalled telling her father about a poem she was reading, “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost, Gene Mills recited each line and stanza from memory.
“He wasn’t just a coach and a teacher,” she said.