By Kristen Harmel
As Jon L.Mills stepped down in June after serving as the 12th dean of the University of Florida Levin College of Law, one thing was for sure: “The immediate future is to be reserved for Beth, Marguerite and Elizabeth.”
“I’ve been dean (four-year-old) Elizabeth’s entire life, which means I’ve been away a lot,”Mills said. “Frankly, not having kids until your late 40s and early 50s in some ways makes it more special. I just want to spend more time with the girls (Marguerite is 8) and more time with (wife) Beth.”
As for hobbies,Mills said he occasionally plays golf, but not nearly as well as five or six years ago.He looks forward to spending more time at a vacation home on Lake Santa Fe, and to renewing his interest in good books. As for movies, he hasn’t “seen one in about four years that wasn’t animated.”
“Marguerite plays a little golf, so sometimes we’ll play,” he says. “We fish off the back deck occasionally. I take her to drama practice when she’s in plays, and Elizabeth also fishes. Elizabeth has the higher energy gene. They’re both very smart. I’m looking forward right now just to being Daddy.”
There’s also speculation Mills eventually will make another dramatic career turn.
“I guess a number of people see me running for something. Yes, I would consider it, but who knows. In the last four years, I had to be politically totally neutral. You cannot consider a political career while dean of a public law school.”
Mills refers to a Winston Churchill quote where Churchill says, “‘I was a pretty good wartime prime minister, but am not sure how good I’d be in peacetime.’ Perhaps the same applies to me. I think we’ve accomplished a lot during a tough time, and now I’m very happy to pass the baton.”
Just 48-plus months ago, late in 1999, Jon Mills’ future did not look quite so leisurely, family oriented or relaxing after the resignation Dean Rick Matasar. Then-UF President John Lombardi asked Mills that September if he would step in on an interim basis “because of Mills’ leadership experience, long association with UF, and his love and loyalty to the school.”
“I didn’t really plan to stay long,”Mills said. “I was thinking I’d help organize things and move the place forward a little.”
But Mills had stepped into the middle of a brewing storm, and as he began to take charge and move things ahead, he realized it would take longer than a few months to set the school back on track.
“The alumni were fairly agitated by a combination of controversies, we had an enormous number of senior faculty about to retire so recruiting and hiring was critical,”Mills noted. “The American Bar Association previously had warned us we had inadequate facilities and that it was an accreditation issue. And we soon had controversies over racial issues.”
After Mills had been at work about six months, UF President Charles Young came by, chatted briefly, and asked Mills to remove the Interim title and stay permanently. “At that time, I figured doing this for four years would be about right. I truly thought I could get done what I wanted to accomplish in that time.”
Born and raised in the Miami area, Mills was an avid golfer and captain of his high school team (finishing fourth in statewide competition).
Mills is the only child of Herb (who worked for a restaurant equipment sales company) and Marguerite (high school English teacher from Georgia). Perhaps thanks to his mother – now 90 and living in Gainesville – Mills learned ease in front of others; in 1933, she was the first-ever Orange Bowl Queen.
Despite early aspirations of becoming an architect,Mills began to think of a law career.
“Off and on, I’d been talking about being a lawyer since I was 10,” he says. “My mother also taught debate, so that and Perry Mason inspired me to think that way.”
After graduating from Coral Gables High School,Mills went to Stetson University, where he majored in economics and played on the golf team, again as captain.
In 1969,Mills made a connection that helped shape the rest of his life. Fresh out of Stetson with his bachelor’s degree, he enrolled at UFLaw.
“It was accessible, I wanted to stay in the state, and most importantly it was then, as now, easily the best law school in Florida,” he says. Mills made the most of his experience, participating in Moot Court and becoming Florida Law Review editor. In 1972, he graduated fifth in his class with honors, and received book awards in four courses (given to the top student, thanks to alumni contributions, in each class).
“I went on military duty at that point, and was at Ft. Knox for a while,”Mills says. “This was as the war in Vietnam was winding down. I was waiting to be sent, but it turned out I just continued training. UFLaw Dean (Richard) Julin called about that time, and asked me to a football game – I think the Gators lost – and while there asked if I would consider directing a six-month project at the law school.”
Mills agreed to what turned out to be a major factor in shaping his career – and somewhat the course of the College of Law.
“We had a grant to study President Nixon’s cutting of housing and civil rights programs funding. So I got a bunch of students together, and we ended up suing the federal government in three or four federal courts.We were quoted in the New York Times and the Washington Post. And with Fletcher Baldwin, we filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving the Environmental Protection Agency. We were involved in things all over the country that were relatively high profile. Ironically, one of our CGR students on the project – Carol Browner – became the longest-serving EPA administrator in its history.
“Michael McIntosh, donor financing the short-term project, thought we had been most successful, and expanded our resources,” Mills said. “That was a project Dean Julin devised, and we converted it into what became the Center for Governmental Responsibility. It seemed a natural outcome after the success of the project to have a Center that would do research and public policy work – that could change things for the good – associated with the law school.”
After a few years of heading CGR, Mills decided in 1978 to run for State Legislature.
“It seemed a natural progression in the sense I wanted to have an effect on public policy and it seemed logical,” he says.“I was not thinking of or predicting a political career.”
Predicted or not, he had one. In 10 years as a Florida legislator – two as Speaker of the House – Mills accomplished a number of key changes: He was on a committee in 1981 that created one of the State’s first child abuse programs, enabling law enforcement agencies to come together and deal with the problem.
He was instrumental in enacting major environmental legislation such as the Water Quality Act. He helped on appropriations for UF, and spearheaded the drive to fund what is now the university’s Center for Performing Arts.
While in the legislature, Mills continued his work with UFLaw and moved to the classroom in 1983, stepping in to teach a legislative drafting course. In 1988, after a decade in the legislature, Mills made an unsuccessful run for Congress.
“It was not a good year for Democrats, but it was a good focusing experience. I did well and met lots of people that are still our friends. It was a very difficult 24 months with the campaign loss and coming right after my father’s severe illness and death (in 1987). But thankfully, the law school at that time asked me back.”
Mills returned to direct CGR, and it was soon suggested he teach more. In 1992 he became a professor, and in ‘96 was tenured. He taught Florida Constitutional Law, trade and environment, legislation and several comparative international law seminars. During those years, he came into personal contact with nearly every UFLaw student.
“Florida Constitutional Law is a course almost everybody takes because it’s on the Bar exam. So for six or seven years, everybody going through law school at some point was in my class. A number of Congressmen, members of the legislature, students now managing partners of diverse law firms – all went through my classes.”
In 1998, Mills put his Florida Constitutional Law work to practical use. Then-Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him to the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, where he served for two years. He chaired the Style & Draft Committee, authored a provision on high quality education and was chosen the most valuable commission member. And then, in ‘99, the Lombardi visit.
AS FOR THE LAW SCHOOL FUTURE?
“I think the future is incredibly bright,”Mills notes “The direction is set. Dean (Bob) Jerry believes in the strategic plan developed by the faculty, and agrees with our vision – which looks to the future and recognizes our past and what this law school has meant to Florida and the country. I think the College has a good feeling about itself, is headed in a most positive direction, and I think the facilities will be the major, immediate symbol of that direction.”
As he steps down, Mills feels good about the changes that have taken place at UFLaw.
“I think the way you assess an educational institution is the faculty, students, alumni and the facilities. And all those are dramatically different than they were.”