Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Mr. Mills

My sophomore year in high school, I decided to join my church’s adult choir. Thanks to a brief mini-audition conducted by the choir director, the late great John Harper, it was determined that I should hop into the bass section, which I happily did … even though I wasn’t really a bass, or at least I was a bass of the high school variety, which frequently meant I could get most of those low notes out but there probably wasn’t a whole lot of power attached to them.

So, every Thursday night and every Sunday morning, I sat in the bass section, surrounded by men of at least middle age. They took me under their collective wing, all the while probably wondering what this curious 15-year-old thought he was getting into! And there were, um, some genuine characters sitting in those choir loft pews; but the gentleman who was arguably the finest combination of jokester and helper was Ted Mills.

I knew Mr. Mills from early in my childhood – he was a church-family friend of my parents, and since I was the sort of kid who was just as happy to hang out with my parents’ friends as with people my own age, I knew Mr. Mills and he knew me. At the time I didn’t focus so much on what he did for a living (worked at Raytheon, I believe), or on his status as a US Navy veteran. Rather, I knew him as a choir person and as one of those people you’d call “a pillar of the church”, though I didn’t have that phrase with me at the time. If you needed something done, you knew that if you called on Ted, he’d get the job done, and well. When the pastors talked about upholding the church through our “prayers, presence, gifts, and service”, the implication was, there’s Mr. Mills over there – singing, or building something, or fixing something, or whatever – and let’s try to follow his example, shall we?

Ten years ago, when I became the director of that choir, Ted Mills was still a major presence in the back row. I just stopped and re-read that sentence, and thought it might suggest that after all that time, Ted still being a choir member might have been something unexpected. Hardly. In fact, throughout these most recent ten years, Ted has been just exactly the same as he ever was: cracking wise and faithfully present, a singing stalwart of the choir’s bass section. When he enjoyed an anthem we were preparing, you knew it. As a Navy man, the Navy Hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” was always a glad experience for him. When he thought an anthem was a particular, um, challenge – you heard about that too. It might have been a challenge to sing, or to listen to, or both, and he was willing to opine about that. When he wasn’t maybe the biggest fan of a particular style of anthem that we were singing, you knew that, as well; but it didn’t keep him from keeping after it, working to figure it out, continuing to plug away at it. Ted could be quietly irascible about that sometimes, but never ever disrespectfully so – and he made sure that even if he never would have chosen to sing a particular musical selection again, when the choir offered it up to God and the congregation, he would do everything he could do to make it the best offering it could be, or at least make sure the bass section survived it. And if we scheduled it to be sung again, he wouldn’t bail out. He’d sing it again.

Because he knew me “way back when”, when I was a little guy (I mean, six or seven years old little) … no matter what, when we met up, it was always, “heyyyyy, Robbie”. He might have followed that up with humor (Ted’s glint in the eye was something to behold), or a simple how-are-ya, or a serious but gentle question or concern about something choir-related; but I always knew I was getting a straight-ahead honest something from him.

That was just as true the last couple of times I saw him.

Six months ago, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he was given six months to live. He didn’t sing with the choir again after April, but he made it to church regularly for a few months more, and on an evening in late August nearly two dozen choir members (and relations) piled into cars and drove over to his house so we could sing some hymns with him and his wife, Donna. The last time I saw him in church, earlier this summer, I trotted over to him in his wheelchair, extended my hand, and in return got a handshake that was the strongest handshake I’d received from anyone that week, cancer patient or no. And at that choir-singing gathering in August, he was singing right along with us and (predictably) making us laugh a lot. So there, pretty much, was Ted in a nutshell: honest and direct. And (cracking) wise.

Ted Mills passed away early this week. The lung cancer did what cancer often does; it reached out and, cruelly, became a brain tumor as well. The doctors had given him six months, and (if I know Ted like I think I do) he took those six months and fought with everything he had. Assuredly, the choir will miss him long after we sing at his memorial service next weekend. Just as assuredly, he will never, never be gone from us: not as long as the basses keep being rowdy from the back row, and not as long as the choir keeps offering up anthems (easy or difficult; familiar or strange).


And whenever we sing the Navy Hymn again, we’ll remember him, and I know I’ll smile:


Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walked’st on the foaming deep,
And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Trinity of love and power!
Our brethren shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe’er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.


October 5, 2011 - Posted by | choir, heroes, humor, music, SUMC | , , , , , , ,


  1. Thank you rob, he will definitely be missed. At his funeral, please sing loudly for me…

    Comment by John Nash | October 6, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] For me, the last year(-plus) has featured all of those things: change, upheaval, the expressing of opinion (constructive or not). In particular, it’s been a year full of passing-away – an unusually protracted run of deaths, of people directly or indirectly connected to the circles in which I travel (both professional and personal). I wrote about one of those, a member of the church choir that I direct, here. […]

    Pingback by A Slightly-Less-Snarky Year-End Review Than Last Year’s « Editorial License | December 29, 2011 | Reply

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