"He was a man of purpose," said Inez Love, PAAN's interim executive director.
In Mr. Mills' line of work, success can be hard to come by and even harder to measure. But those who worked with him said that by any measure he was a success. He was a surrogate father to hundreds of at-risk young people, and he helped some get jobs or find money for college. In other words, he made a difference.
"James had a vision," Love said. "He worked with a population that most folks want to write off - the young people who are repeatedly victims or perpetrators. Those were the kids he wanted."
She said that when Mr. Mills started PAAN, it had 17 workers and a budget of well under $1 million. It now has a staff of 60 and a million-dollar-plus budget, funded through city, state, federal and private sources.
PAAN's roots can be traced to 1985, when Mr. Mills met Lillian Ray. At the time, he was counseling gang members for the Crisis Intervention Network, PAAN's forerunner. Ray was a South Philadelphia community activist. The two put together a campaign to broaden drug-prevention programs, and their effort so impressed Mayor W. Wilson Goode that in 1989 he made Ray the city's drug czar and Mr. Mills head of PAAN. Ray resigned in March, and the city has eliminated the position.
Mr. Mills grew up fatherless, the oldest of five children, at North Philadelphia's Richard Allen Homes, once the city's largest public-housing project. He was nicknamed Beaver because of his broad, toothy smile.
He was a member of the 12th and Poplar Gang, and by age 14 he had been arrested several times for fighting and carrying weapons. He dropped out of Benjamin Franklin High School. He sold drugs.
Once, after spending four months in a youth detention center, he was arrested a few weeks later for carrying a pistol and was sentenced to 14 months at the Glen Mills Youth Reformatory.
He was released at age 16 and was placed in an apprenticeship program, working as a carpenter's aide for the Philadelphia Housing Authority. But he continued to deal drugs and rumble with rival gangs.
"I was a destructive young man," he said in a 1996 Inquirer interview. "I decided at an early age that I was going to be bad. . . . I felt I could get more girls that way, more friends, more admiration."
Mr. Mills overdosed on heroin and nearly died in 1975, but even that did not change his life.
The turning point came a little later that year, when he bumped into a man whom he once had served as a drug source. The man told him he had gotten off drugs through a religious transformation he'd experienced at a nearby church.
The next morning, Mr. Mills made a pilgrimage to Rehoboth Apostolic Church, at Germantown Avenue and Seymour Street. The visit "revolutionized my life," he said. "If I hadn't gone to that church, I'd be a statistic."
In addition to his wife of 25 years, Mr. Mills is survived by his mother, Phyllis Golds; two sisters; and one brother.
Mr. Mills will lie in state from noon to 8 p.m. tomorrow at West Oak Lane Church of God, 7401 Limekiln Pike. Services will be at the church at 10 a.m. Saturday; friends may call at 9 a.m. Burial will be in Chelten Hills Cemetery.
Contact Rusty Pray
at 215-854-2322 or firstname.lastname@example.org.