The Life and Legacy of Mike McMillan
By Ray Hill
The late Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.” Truer words have never been spoken. Local government officials are frequently maligned, unappreciated, and sometimes subjected to downright rude behavior, especially in today’s digital world. Yet there are those occasions when a local official is, by and large, truly appreciated by a grateful constituency. That was Mike McMillan’s good fortune.
Mike McMillan died last Friday. Mike McMillan was a pretty strong fellow although he was a man who could be reasoned with and was quite tolerant.
For the last thirteen years, Mike McMillan served on the Knox County Board of Education. Prior to that, he had served for a decade on the Knox County Commission. Mike McMillan spent nearly a quarter of a century representing the people of Knox County’s Eighth District on one body or the other, a responsibility he took very seriously. Until retirement, Mike McMillan was a school teacher throughout his adult life.
Mike’s father Joe was a longtime member of the Knox County Quarterly Court and its more modern iteration, the county commission. When Joe died of a cerebral hemorrhage, Mike McMillan won a contested special convention called in the Eighth District to run in the general election. Joe McMillan had been perhaps the most conservative member of the Knox County Commission and while nobody ever could call Mike a free spender, there were noticeable differences between father and son.
Joe McMillan considered himself as something of an orator and would frequently speak to any number of issues before the county commission. Mike only spoke when he felt he needed to, especially if it was an issue of importance to the Eighth District.
In 2010, Mike McMillan, having retired, decided to run for the Eight District school board seat. Mike McMillan won the general election that year. McMillan’s previous service on the county commission gave him an advantage, especially in understanding the thinking of those folks who actually have to raise the taxes to pay for everything in county government.
The first couple of years Mike McMillan served on the board of education were difficult, but they never broke his spirit nor his will to do whatever he believed to be right. McMillan was diminished by his colleagues at that time and largely ignored by the Superintendent Jim McIntyre administration until that became impossible. Mike didn’t let that discourage him and continued to work hard to be part of the majority on the board. As one admiring constituent once said, Mike McMillan was the “honey badger” of the Knox County Board of Education. He would never give up. Mike McMillan was a rarity in many ways, not the least being he was a teacher who said his first concern was the students, parents and taxpayers.
The Focus has many times over the past 13 years detailed all the projects and improvements that Mike McMillan supported. Mike was successful in obtaining a new Carter Elementary School and significant improvements for Carter Middle School, and singlehandedly fought off an attempt to close the Career Magnet School in Straw Plains. Mike was also instrumental in securing approval and funding for a new Gibbs Middle School and a new Gibbs High School football stadium.
Reelected in 2020 while being treated for lung cancer, McMillan was unable to campaign as he had in the past. Throughout a tough battle with throat and lung cancer, Mike McMillan continued to attend board meetings unless he was hospitalized. Once diagnosed with cancer, for the rest of his life Mike McMillan breathed through a trach. Eventually, the treatments he had received for his battles with cancer had diminished his lung capacity, which led to his untimely death.
Mike McMillan and I were friends for a mighty long time. Before he became ill, we spoke quite nearly every day and spoke about everything under the sun. That kind of friendship can never be replaced, only treasured and remembered.
Mike McMillan leaves behind a rich legacy of service to the people who honored him time and again, something for which he was very grateful. That same legacy can be seen today with the projects that McMillan nurtured into being. There will be generations of children and young people who will learn in those same buildings for generations to come.
Knox County Leaders Remember Mike McMillan
“His Dad and mine were friends as he and I were. I relied on him and without our friendship and collaboration, I don’t think the Carter Elementary or Gibbs Middle schools would have happened.” – Congressman Tim Burchett
“Mike was a strong conservative voice on the BOE and always very kind to me. He will be missed.” – Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs
“I met Mike through our mutual passion for antiques. I admired him for his kindness and strong sense of purpose. I will miss him very much.”– Charlie Susano, Circuit Court Clerk
“Nobody cared more about the safety of school children than Mike McMillan and nobody was more interested in backing the blue. Mike was always on the side of right, especially where safety was involved. Mike was a personal friend and I hate to hear we’ve lost him. Mike really made a difference in our community.” – Tom Spangler, Knox County Sheriff
“Public service is best defined by the actions of those who dedicate themselves to others. Mike McMillan served Knox County well. Here’s to a life well lived and gone too soon.” – Larsen Jay, Knox County Commissioner-At-Large
“Mike devoted nearly a quarter century to public service. In that time, he led with wisdom and with an unwavering commitment to do what was right–for kids and for our community. Anyone who knew Mike would tell you that he always had a smile on his face and a joke or a story to tell you. I learned early on that every story he told had a purpose–they were Mike’s way of sharing his wisdom, of teaching something to anyone willing to listen. I will miss those stories and I’ll deeply miss Mike’s heart for our community. Please join me in lifting up Mike’s family and friends and the entire 8th district in your thoughts and prayers.”
– Dr. Jon Rysewyk, Superintendent, Knox County Schools
“I’m going to miss my friend Mike McMillian. He was a principled leader who served our community for decades, but I’ll remember him for the warmth he showed me when I joined the School Board.” – Betsy Henderson, Chair, Knox County Board of Education
“Mike McMillan was a very effective advocate for his community, both on the County Commission and the Knox County Board of Education. Mike’s experience proved to be a real asset on the Board and I was always impressed by his command of the rules, but even more impressive was his zeal on behalf of the people he represented. Mike McMillan was a fine public servant.” – David Buuck, Knox County Law Director
“Mike and I went to Carter High School together, and even though I was a year ahead of him in school we became very good friends and were friends to the end. I am glad he isn’t struggling anymore. My sincere condolences and prayers to the family. I will miss my friend.” – John Whitehead, Knox County Property Assessor
“I had the privilege of serving with both Joe McMillan and Mike McMillan. I know one thing without a doubt: both of them were absolutely committed to the people of the Eighth District.” – John R. Mills, former Knox County Commissioner
“I’ll remember Mike for his lifetime of service to Knox County and Knox County schools. Mike was a friend and was always ready to share any information to benefit the people of East Knox County or countywide. Mike was a great source of institutional knowledge which was just invaluable to our people.” – Dave Wright, State Representative, 19th District.
“Mike will be extremely missed by myself and Knox County. Mike was a faithful servant for the Eighth District. Thank you, Mr. McMillan.” – Carson Dailey, Knox County Commissioner, 9th District
“I was very sad to hear of Mike McMillan’s passing. Mike was a wonderful public servant for many years for his community and Knox County. He was a very kind gentleman and he will be missed greatly. My thoughts go out to his family, friends and community.” – Gina Oster, Knox County Commissioner
“Mike and I were friends so long the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. Mike had a huge capacity for friendship and an equally big heart. The world is an emptier place without Mike McMillan in it.” – Ray Hill, former State Representative and Focus columnist
“I am saddened by the passing of 8th District School Board Representative Mike McMillan. Mike, the longest serving member of the board, was a fierce advocate for District 8. During his term, the 8th District built a new building for Carter Elementary, built a new middle school for the Gibbs community after the community went over 30 years without a middle school, and saw the creation of a new innovative magnet school, Career Magnet Academy in Carter. Not only was Mike an advocate for students in District 8, but for students outside the district as well. Mike was the deciding vote in the approval of Knox County’s first charter school, Emerald Academy.
“Mike McMillan will be remembered for the many accomplishments in his tenure, fighting for our kids, our schools and our community.” – Travis Wright, Candidate for Knox County Board of Education, 8th District and former student of Mike McMillan