In Memory: Kay Mills, 1941-2011

Kay Mills celebrates another mountain tennis match

Kay Mills, a historian of women in journalism and civil rights and an inspirational member of the Journalism and Women Symposium’s founding board of directors, died Thursday, January 13, 2011, after a sudden heart attack in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 69.

Kay’s sudden death shocked and saddened her JAWS friends, who considered themselves Kay’s extended family, often housing her on her research trips. She in turn hosted countless friends who passed through Santa Monica.

Past JAWS president Dawn Garcia offered the photo above from our 2006 camp in Sun Valley, Idaho, saying it’s how she’ll always remember Kay: “Strong, forthright, clear-eyed, making a point on an issue of importance, I’m sure, to women and journalism.”
Kay chronicled JAWS “Her Story” through much of our organization’s life, from the early years through the last decade.

But she also made her own bit of history, blazing a trail as one of the first and often the only women on the Los Angeles Times editorial board, as well as chronicling courageous women in history through her books.

Kay noted that though she was shy as a child, she was drawn to journalism by the opportunity to write – and by the examples set by her father’s best friend and her uncle, both journalists. It wasn’t until she began looking for a job after getting a master’s degree in African history from Northwestern University that she realized just how tough things were for women. She recounted in one of her books that while interviewing for a job with Newsweek’s Chicago bureau in 1996, the bureau chief said “I need someone I can send anywhere, like to riots. And besides, what would you do if someone you were covering ducked into the men’s room?”

She ended up writing broadcast news for United Press International, then moved to the Baltimore Evening Sun to cover child welfare and education. She worked briefly as an assistant press secretary for Sen. Edmund Muskie, then joined Newhouse Newspapers’ Washington bureau.

Kay was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University in 1977. The following year, she took a job as an editorial writer with the Los Angeles Times. She ultimately served as assistant editor of the Sunday Opinion section.

During her years at the Times, Kay became one of the early members of JAWS, serving as the newsletter editor beginning in 1987, a job she would hold off and on for years, and as a member of the first board of directors. Her careful chronicling of the evolution of JAWS continues to serve to remind us of our organization’s roots.

But Kay had bigger historic concerns stemming from her interest in civil rights and equality for women and minorities. Columbia University Press published her “A Place in the News: From the Women’s Pages to the Front Page,”  a history of women in journalism in 1988. In 1991, Kay decided to leave the Times and devote herself to writing books and freelancing full-time.

In 1993, a project she initially proposed in the 1970s came to fruition in “This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer.” Her biography of the Mississippi civil rights leader received the Christopher Award and the Julia Spruilll Book Prize from the Southern Association of Women Historians for the best book on Southern women’s history. University Press of Kentucky published a revised version of the book, with a forward by Marian Wright Edelman, in 2007.

“From Pocahontas to Power Suits: Everything You Need to Know About Women’s History in America” was published by Plume paperbacks in 1995. And a journalism fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation (JAWS member Margaret Engel is a director of the organization) enabled Kay to work on her next book, “Something Better for My Children: The History and People of Head Start,” published in 1999.

In 2004, University of Mississippi Press published “Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case That Transformed Television,”  the story of the successful challenge of the Jackson, Miss., TV station that failed to cover the civil rights movement.

“She was meticulous and serious in her work and scrupulously fair,” Engel wrote. “And, of course, just a warm delight as a friend and colleague.”

Kay’s freelance work appeared in the New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, Ms., Mother Jones and a variety of other publications.

But JAWS members knew her best from our annual camps as a wonderful mentor, offering advice over a glass of wine or making a salient point in group discussions. She was ready for a tennis match or a hike or a quiet conversation. And she always tried to bring the business meeting of camp to a quick conclusion by making the motion to adjourn.

“Kay’s generous spirit and intrepid curiosity will continue to inspire me, and my sadness will gradually be tempered by the knowledge that Kay’s life and work made a huge difference for so many,” wrote Margie Freivogel, anoother past president of JAWS.

And Kay continued to expand her horizons.

In November 2009, she wrote to the JAWS listserv to announce her new Web site, “In the department of You-Can-So-Teach-An-Old-Dog-New-Tricks, I learned about the importance of blogs at Snowbird this year. Several people said that agents and publishers now want to know whether someone blogs because that can be an asset for promoting your books. And it could even lead to landing a contract. So I figured I’d better get with the program.”

At the time of her death, Kay was working on a mystery novel set in Paris, requiring plenty of on-the-ground research.

The women of JAWS – and beyond – will remember Kay for her friendship and her hard work to help others succeed.

“She knew everyone, taught all of us to drink good wine, hike unexplored mountains and tell better and funnier stories,” wrote Pat Sullivan, a former JAWS president. “She could rail against journalism’s failings and celebrate its accomplishments. She was the heart and soul of the Journalism & Women Symposium.”