Community champion Hugh McMillan dies at 96
Longtime community activist and newspaper correspondent Hugh McMillan died of natural causes early Friday morning, Feb. 10, at St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor. He was 96.
McMillan was born June 17, 1926, in New Westminster, British Columbia, the son of Angus and Clara McMillan.
The family moved when Hugh was 3 years old to Tacoma, where he attended school. He graduated in 1944 from Lincoln High, where he served as student body president and yell leader.
McMillan, whose father died when he was 15, joined the Navy in 1945. The service released him because World War II ended while he was in training.
He attended the College (now University) of Puget Sound, where he met his wife Janice Grosser, and graduated in 1950. He continued graduate studies at University of California-Berkeley and began to pursue a doctorate at the University of Washington.
Around the world with the CIA
In 1952, the relatively newly formed (1947) Central Intelligence Agency hired McMillan as an operations officer. He moved to Washington, D.C., and married Janice on June 6, 1952, in Alexandria, Va.
She died on Aug. 1, 2021. The couple were married for 69 years.
The agency first posted the McMillans to Tokyo, where sons Lance and Marshall were born in 1956 and 1959. Hugh was later assigned to consulates and embassies in India, Egypt, Greece and Turkey. He retired from the CIA in 1978 after 26 years.
“It was a fascinating and unique life,” Lance said. “We lived in countries where the embassy or consulate staff was maybe a half dozen people and their families. We attended foreign schools. The only time I can honestly saw I’ve experienced culture shock is when I came back to the United States for the first time.”
The McMillans moved back to the Northwest, to a waterfront home in Home, and became immersed in Key Peninsula and Gig Harbor activities. Lance was already away at college and Marshall soon followed.
Marshall drowned in a boating accident in Puget Sound in 1979 at 19 years old.
Fire service was a lifesaver
Hugh was struggling with grief when in May 1980 Key Peninsula Fire Department asked him to become a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. Within a few weeks, he helped save a man’s life, and revive his own.
“I would say for a year and a half, my dad was absolutely despondent,” said Lance, 66, who lives near Home. “We were worried about his sanity. He really took it hard. He got involved in a number of things, but most notably the fire department pulled him out of it and gave him real purpose.”
Hugh said that the fire department saved his life.
“I looked into my life and said, ‘Maybe I’d better hang around for a while,'” he told the University of Puget Sound for a profile story in 2017.
Stick around he did. He became president of the firefighters’ association, a department fire commissioner, vice president of Pierce County Fire Commissioners and a board member for the Washington Fire Commissioners Association. He was recognized as a lifetime honorary Washington state fire commissioner and volunteer. A plaque in front of the Key Center fire station celebrates his service.
Wrote Kids’ Corner column
McMillan particularly enjoyed writing about and photographing students for the Key Peninsula News and Peninsula Gateway newspapers. His Kids’ Corner column ran in the Gateway for decades until he lost his vision in 2021 and couldn’t continue. He sought to bring the Key and Gig Harbor peninsulas together through his writing, and to serve as a mouthpiece for students to tell their stories.
Peninsula School District Assistant Superintendent Dan Gregory knew McMillan since Gregory joined the district in 2001. He told the Gateway in 2021, during a ceremony to name the Evergreen Elementary School gym the Hugh McMillan Community Center, that: “He is an individual that advocates for all of our students across the district. Over the years, he has been everywhere with his camera, everywhere with his words. He has shown a light on our students and our staff through his Kids’ Corner column.”
“Of all the things he did after retiring from the CIA, I think his Kids’ Corner column was what he was proudest of,” said Lance, who with wife Sheri Ahlheim and their son Cameron survives McMillan.
Helped start Lions Club
In 1983, McMillan helped form the Key Peninsula Lions Club. He ultimately received a diamond pin from Lions Clubs International for recruiting at least 75 new members.
“I think it was a combination of, he liked the camaraderie and because it was community-service related,” Lance said of his father’s attraction. “He was one of the people who came up with the idea of the local Lions Club doing the citizen of the year banquet.” Hugh won the award in 1984-85.
Family and friends remarked on McMillan’s gregarious personality and acceptance of everybody.
“He did not judge people on their monetary worth, their social standing, their education. None of that really mattered,” Lance said. “If you’re a person, he wanted to get to know you and become your friend. He would literally stop and chat with people in line at stores and invite them over for dinner, just out of the blue like that. It happened all the time.”
The McMillans hosted annual Fourth of July parties of more than 100 people where high-ranking politicians mingled with laborers.
“My dad didn’t care,” Lance said. “If they’re good people, he wanted to get to know them and befriend them. He really got along with everybody.”
And he loved to talk.
“We used to say do not talk to Hugh unless you’ve got a minimum of half an hour,” Lance said. “If you ask him what time it is, you’ll get a 15-minute lecture on the manufacture of cuckoo clocks, and when it’s done you’ll still have no idea of what time it is.”
Involved in everything
McMillan was a founding or early member of many other local organizations, including Key Peninsula Citizens Against Crime, Key Peninsula Community Services food bank, Communities in Schools of Peninsula, Peninsula Schools Education Foundation, Peninsula Emergency Preparedness Coalition and Hope Recovery Center.
“He had so many commitments to these committees and boards, you had to schedule family things a week in advance because there was no other way to get him to attend,” Lance said.
Hugh moved to an assisted living facility in 2020, but remained active. He attended Peninsula Metropolitan Parks District meetings in support of efforts to build a dedicated senior center until just before his death.
McMillan spurred Larry Seaquist to run for the state Legislature, where he served from 2007 to 2015. Having lived in the secret CIA world for a quarter century, Hugh reveled in being out in the community where he could continue to use his abilities to observe, read people and solve problems, Seaquist posited.
“It wasn’t staying busy as much as just in his genes,” Seaquist said. “And the other thing is he prompted that kind of civic energy in other people. They didn’t just watch Hugh do it. They all got involved in the project.”
McMillan’s efforts earned him many honors. The Pierce County Council proclaimed April 22, 2006, as Hugh McMillan Day. The Gig Harbor Chamber of Commerce named him citizen of the year in 2010. Gig Harbor Rotary North awarded him its Star Award in 2014. Peninsula School District annually presents a Hugh McMillan award to a community member who makes extraordinary contributions to the schools. Rep. Derek Kilmer recognized his 90th birthday in a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, calling him the unofficial mayor of Key Peninsula.
An extraordinary life
After learning of McMillan’s death Friday, Kilmer said, “On the Mount Rushmore of amazing Americans, there ought to be a place for Hugh McMillan. Hugh lived an extraordinary life of service, and, in his later years, he dedicated himself to improving the lives of folks on the Key Peninsula and supporting the kids of the Peninsula School District.
“His newspaper column celebrated kids and brought hope for the future. He could always be found with his camera — on high alert to capture a photo that would bring smiles to the community.
“One of my more memorable days in politics involved standing with Hugh near the Purdy Spit on Election Day. I asked him two questions: “Tell me how you entered the CIA. And tell me how you met your wife, Janice.” Two hours later, Hugh stopped talking. And his stories were an utter delight.
“I’m sorry to learn that Hugh passed this morning. But I’m happy that he will be back with Janice.”
The McMillan family plans a celebration of life; details will be announced later.