Olympian Billy Mills: Long may he run

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This is the final installment in a three-part Indian Country Today series about Billy Mills, the hero of the 1964 Olympics Games in Tokyo, Japan, winner of the Gold Medal in the 10,000 meter run. Mills, is a Native American hero, who, arguably, accomplished the single greatest track and field victory in this country's history and has gone on to lead a life full of greater victories.

Billy Mills is a hero who has never let us down. Think about the laundry list of so-called heroes, in and out of sports, who have done the exact opposite. A cynical view - and God knows there's plenty of reasons to go that way - might note that the ones disappointing us outnumber the Billy Mills, by a lot. That's why Mills needs to be better celebrated; needs to be honored, even though he wouldn't want to be. You see, what he's really given people is a reason not to be cynical. A reason to believe in the potential goodness in all human beings.

Many of the lessons Mills imparts in his speeches - and through the way he lives his life - are based on four basic Lakota values: bravery, fortitude, generosity and wisdom. Mills explains with a quiet, yet deep intensity: "Be brave enough to make courageous choices for yourself. Use fortitude to stay the course - but, always remember, if that course isn't value-based you won't succeed. Generosity isn't about giving money, it's about being willing to give what you want to receive - respect and love for oneself. Dig deep within yourself to find the wisdom that is truly there.

"I always tell people you have to challenge yourself to live up to these values. And you're going to stumble, we all do, and then you have to pick yourself up and keep going. Perhaps the greatest challenge is that of examining our own perceptions, and then sincerely looking at the perceptions of others, how they perceive us. How they see our world. That's not an easy thing to honestly do. But it's so life enhancing and so rewarding when you do."

"Billy is just is a natural speaker," Pat Mills says simply. "He doesn't talk about himself at all. He tells stories, perhaps like his father once told him. But the themes are always about values and are family based. One of the things he always says, maybe the guiding principle of his life, is that the strength of our world and ourselves is all about unity. Unity through global diversity. He's lived it, he knows the strength that can come from it.

"He is so compassionate with the audience. It's almost scary how he connects to people. It's way deep, it's amazing." A hundred times a year or more, Billy Mills speaks to corporations, foundations, all manner of groups large and small. He may be a better talker than he was a runner. Despite not being a member, Toastmasters International - the country's largest public speakers' organization - selected Mills one of the country's top five motivational speakers in 1996. A fellow named Colin Powell also made the list.

It says here that those of us who are fortunate enough to hear genuine messages of hope need to be sure to reward those rare people who provide us with such precious gifts. We need to appreciate our heroes. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the greatest track race an American has ever run. That achievement is cause for a great national celebration. But because that achievement was accomplished by such an admirable, honorable man makes the celebration all the more important. Call it a lifetime achievement award.

Billy Mills is a modest, unassuming symbol of the rewards of virtue. He's in a heart-warming partnership with the love of his life. He's got passion and dreams, and he's pursuing them. He's proud of his four daughters. Laughs easily, often at himself. He came from poverty and isn't bitter. He's experienced more than his share of racism and isn't angry. (Not that he doesn't have firm, strong opinions, he does. But the opinions are expressed with calm rationality, all the better for the people who badly need to hear them.) Most of all Billy Mills is content. He's happy. It's that simple.

The Mills have four daughters, Christy, Lisa, Billie Joe and Megan. Over the years, the family has also opened their door to girls who need help. "We call them Pat's scholarships," Mills says. "When we see somebody who needs some help, we bring them in to live with us. They help in the house and we pay them and we always call them our daughters." Mills describes all of this as if it's normal, that everybody invites troubled, needy kids into their homes. "Sometimes I forget how many daughters I really have," he says with a laugh. They have a surrogate son too, Nick Sparks, a gifted writer who collaborated with Mills on the wonderful allegorical book, "Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Self-Understanding." Since the death of Sparks' mother his children now call Pat Mills "Grandma."

"Do our kids understand what their dad accomplished?" Pat Mills asks in answer to a question. "I think they do understand it. But they're his children, even if they're grownups now. Like kids everywhere, their father doesn't get any extra respect from them," she adds with a chuckle. "Maybe they don't quite get the significance of his accomplishments like people our age do. At a time when there was so much cultural prejudice, what Billy's Olympic Gold Medal meant to the Native American community and to American society at large is hard for anybody who wasn't alive then to fully appreciate. Each generation needs to discover their own heroes. And that's probably the way it ought to be. But our kids know that their father means a lot to a lot of people. That's all either of us need."

Perhaps we shouldn't get too schmaltzy here. Billy Mills is, after all, a human being. Maybe 60 years ago he didn't settle down for his nap in kindergarten. Maybe he pulled somebody's ponytail in junior high. Maybe he got a speeding ticket or didn't come to a complete halt at a stop sign. But no one has ever reported such a thing.

The worst thing ever said about him on record comes from Pat Mills (a "closet jock" and former marathoner who knows her sports): "He loves golf but he's not as good as he thinks he is." For his part, Mills reports that although he doesn't keep a handicap he did shoot a more than respectable 98 at Pebble Beach. He then goes on to ruefully admit that at his favorite local course, "I once shot an 83 and a week later a 106." (Even for Billy Mills, golf doesn't discriminate, it torments everybody.) Incidentally, Mills plays with a set of clubs made by the black golfer, Jim Thorpe, now on the Champions Tour. When they played together, Thorpe watched Mills' swing for a couple of holes and dryly suggested, "Billy, why don't you just drop your ball near where mine lands? It'll be safer for the other golfers."

Making people safer is also a big part of Mills' work with Running Strong for American Indian Youth, the national non-profit organization for whom he has been national spokesman for all of its 17 years. The non-profit provides immediate survival necessities - food, water and shelter - to people in desperate need. It also creates and supports local programs whose focus is on tribal youth. The organization funds both the Pine Ridge Dialysis Clinic for those with serious kidney problems and the Eagle Butte Community Food Pantry which feeds 300 families a month. With the growing problem of diabetes in the Native community there's recently been a significant emphasis on educating people about the importance of proper diet and healthy lifestyles.

Then there's the Cheyenne River Youth Project's sprawling garden, whose worthiness is best described by a recent "Gardener of the Week," nine-year-old Shalynn Carter. "I just like working in the earth. It's fun to watch the seeds turn into something real." At any one time Running Strong for American Indian Youth (www.indianyouth.org) is part of funding, supporting and raising monies for between 10 and 20 projects across the nation, building youth and teen centers, creating organic gardens, providing heat in the winter for the indigent, health services for the poor. Each year the non-profit provides at least $1 million in cash, goods and services. That's important, practical help.

Billy Mills' most important help may well be the idea of "unity through global diversity." In this time of international strife and daily world-wide horror it seems a wise and perfect message. In addition to the inherent wisdom of the phrase, there's a sweetness and optimism to the words. As Pat Mills said upon first meeting her future husband, "He was so sweet." And he still is.

Long may you run, Billy Mills.

Frank Coffey, a former book, magazine and newspaper editor, is the author of 35 books, including four novels. His work includes "Sixty Minutes: 25 Years of Television's Finest Hour"; "Why Do They Call it a Birdie?" and "Golfers on Golf." He packaged the best-selling baseball book "The Bronx Zoo" and Carl Waldman's award-winning books "Atlas of the North American Indian," "Who's Who In Native American History" and "Word Dance."