Beloved reporter George Mills dies
George “Lefty” Mills hitch hiked around Iowa in search of a journalism job in 1928, the first leg in a journey that made him one of the state’s most trusted reporters and respected historians. He died Oct. 20 at the age of 97.
“Being 97 isn’t all it’s billed to be,” Mills said in a July interview with the Business Record. He longed to be free of the wheelchair that gave him movement during his final days at the Iowa Jewish Senior Life Center, and was looking forward to resuming a regular column in the Des Moines Register, where he distinguished himself as a gritty political reporter who never aspired to the editor’s chair.
With the clarity that defied his years, he recalled the role of the railroad in the development of Iowa with a respect that went beyond romantic nostalgia, how the Register’s dogged pursuit of an issue helped “get Iowa out of the mud” and its drivers onto paved roads, and legendary Register publishers such as Gardner Cowles and Ken McDonald.
The walls of his room at the retirement home were plastered with photographs of Mills with President Dwight Eisenhower, clippings of op-ed pieces he wrote for the Register and even a weeks-old letter to the Register’s editorial page correcting a historical detail omitted from a recent story. Collectively, the wall coverings told the story of a reporter’s reporter.
Mills’ thumb yielded success at the Marshalltown Times-Republican, his first job after graduating from Northwestern University, where as a pitcher for the baseball team, he earned the moniker “Lefty” that would follow him through life. However, he covered sports and courts until 1934, when he took a job on the Register’s copy desk. He grew weary of the desk job and editing the copy of others. “I was too much of a bum,” he said. “I needed to be outside chasing news. “When I quit, they told me I was never going to work for the Register again.”
For a time, he didn’t. He staffed the fledgling Iowa Daily Press Association, “a one-man bureau trying to scoop the Register,” Mills said. An institution that supplied legislative news to the state’s daily newspapers, the IDPA later merged with the Iowa Newspaper Association. He also worked for a time as city editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette and for the Associated Press, which brought him back to Des Moines.
McDonald hired Mills back to the Register in 1943. He remained there as a reporter until 1971, when he retired as the newspaper’s chief political writer. During that time, he covered 32 sessions of the Iowa Legislature and became an Iowa newspaper icon.
Mills said McDonald, who almost didn’t get a job at the Register as a fresh University of Iowa graduate, was “probably as much an architect of the Register and its success” as Cowles. Cowles, though, was a genius who turned a fascination with the railroad – “he knew the (time) tables down to the minute,” Mills said – into a strategy important to the Register’s development as one of the premier newspapers in the nation. “He studied the tables and employed that knowledge to time editions so every part of Iowa got top news on time,” Mills said.
Mills reveled in working in an atmosphere of competitiveness between reporters for the Register and those working for its sister publication, the Des Moines Tribune, a 75-year-old afternoon newspaper the Register shuttered in 1982, in part due to television’s siphoning of advertising dollars. But as side-by-side dailies, the Register and Tribune enjoyed glory years. “Reporters for the two papers hated each other, even though they were in the same newsroom,” Mills said.
Though disappointed by the mundane nature of his first stint at the Register, Mills flourished when he returned. “They basically let me alone, and I really worked long hours as a result,” he said.
Excitement quickened the old reporter’s voice and danced in his eyes when he recalled the dog-eat-dog competition for Statehouse stories among reporters for the AP, United Press International, the Register, the Tribune and the IDPA. “We fought like hell over every graph of news,” he said. “We competed for the news and tried to cut each other’s throats, just to get the news. It made for better newspapers. We wanted to get the damned thing in the paper and never get scooped.
“Now, they don’t care if they get it in the paper one day or the next – the bottom line is too important,” he said, his voice betraying both a longing for the days of newspapering when immediacy was everything and a challenge for other news organizations. “If you really want to do a job,” he said, “you would start covering the Statehouse because the Register doesn’t cover it – I’m talking about the offices and other agencies, not just the Legislature.”
His prolific career also included 15 years as the Iowa correspondent for Time, Life and Fortune magazines. A political reporter, he also excelled in human-interest reporting and won several national awards. He wrote seven books, including “Little Man, Long Shadow,” a biography of Frederick M. Hubbell, who arrived in Des Moines as a 16-year-old in 1855 with a $5 gold piece and big dreams. When Hubbell died in 1931, his estate was worth more than $300 million.
With a historian’s accuracy, Mills spoke of the important impact of Hubbell’s Equitable of Iowa Cos. The company was sold to Dutch insurer ING Groep N.V. in 1997 for $2.2 billion. Mills’ list of true Iowa pioneers was long, but John Ruan II was at the top.
“Undeniably, John Ruan is the principal economic leader in this town, and maybe in the state,” he said. “You can trace Ruan from the time when he had one truck and seven gravel contracts.”
Mills credited Ruan with recognizing the potential of the World Food Prize Foundation, which was resurrected in the early 1990s with a $10 million endowment from the Ruan family. “We haven’t begun to see what the World Food Prize can do for Iowa,” he predicted.
From memory, Mills recalled the meteoric rise of Henry A. Wallace, editor of Wallace’s Farmer, founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., U.S. secretary of agriculture and, finally, vice president – all important positions, Mills said, but not as profound as his discovery of a hybrid corn that produced double the yields of other corn in 1936, the year of the worst drought on record. “His impact on this nation and on our civilization was much more important economically than his political impact,” Mills said.
Mills outlived his wives, Mary and Francelle. He is survived by two daughters, Katherine Sweney Mills Mace of Madison, Wis., and Mary Mills Dunea of Chicago; two sons, George S. Mills III of Rockville, Md. and Thomas M. Mills of Augusta, Ga.; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.