Thomas Mills, educator and city administrator

Thomas A. Mills Sr.
Thomas A. Mills Sr.
Posted: August 07, 2014

Thomas A. Mills Sr., 84, of Northeast Philadelphia, an educator and longtime city administrator, died Saturday, Aug. 2, of complications from liver cancer at Paul's Run on Bustleton Avenue.

In the 1960s and 1970s, under Mayors James H.J. Tate and Frank L. Rizzo, Dr. Mills served as Philadelphia's first deputy managing director and its chief deputy Common Pleas Court administrator.

He served as Philadelphia's first deputy finance director in the 1980s under Mayors William J. Green III and W. Wilson Goode Sr.

"My memory of Tom was that he was a good person, a great public servant, and the city was lucky to have him," Green said.

During the terms of Goode and his successor, Ed Rendell, Mr. Mills helped educate the Philadelphia School District's children by serving for 16 years on the Board of Education.

"Dr. Mills was a dedicated public servant," Goode said. "In my view, he was a genius in the way he dealt with finances.

"He was humble in his approach with people, and was able to make people at all levels of government feel comfortable with his knowledge and expertise. He will be missed. He was a rare treasure for the city."

Dr. Mills liked to tell listeners that his school board service was "an unlikely end to an educational career that began with his expulsion from Frankford High School in the 1940s," his family said in a tribute.

Born in September 1929, just weeks before the stock market crash, Dr. Mills grew up during the Depression. His father was a long-distance trucker, gone for days at a time. When social service agencies split up the children among foster homes, Dr. Mills and his brother, Walter, took to living on the city streets. He was 6, his brother 9.

They shined shoes and did odd jobs for nickels to survive. Their meals came from the rear of diners and from pushcarts. They slept in vacant gymnasiums and packing crates that had once held engines, he later told family.

After his grandfather took him in, Dr. Mills enrolled in Frankford High, but he wasn't yet ready to buckle down. He was expelled in the 10th grade for fighting.

Rather than return to class, he joined the Army the day he turned 17 and spent three years serving in Japan and Korea.

It was when he returned stateside and married June Barber that his life began to turn around. He earned a bachelor's degree, two master's degrees, and a doctorate, all from the University of Pennsylvania, and was hired by the city.

"He took the civil service test, and his first job was taking care of the space in the City Hall Annex," said son Craig D.

Dr. Mills was first appointed to the school board by Goode. He was reappointed twice more by Goode and again by Rendell.

"Each time, he took his oath in the same high school from which he had been ejected 40 years before," his son said. "He would talk about it. That would wake the kids up."

Dr. Mills shared his experience in running the city when he became a professor, teaching public administration at the Fels Institute of Government of the University of Pennsylvania, and other local schools. He was a mesmerizing teacher, combining deep knowledge of city finances with deft people skills, said Inquirer editor William K. Marimow.

In 1991, Dr. Mills used his business and education acumen to help launch a charter school - MaST Community Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia, which specializes in math, science, and technology.

Begun in an abandoned metals factory, it is now ranked among the top 50 charter schools in Pennsylvania. Dr. Mills was treasurer and served as the marshal for graduation ceremonies until 2013.

"He went on eBay and bought one of those ceremonial maces, and spray-painted it gold. He marched in the procession, and everybody loved it," said his son.

His wife of more than 50 years died in 2005. Surviving, besides his son, are sons Thomas A. Jr., Stephen B., and Mark C.; eight grandchildren; a brother; and a sister.

Viewings on Monday, Aug. 11, from 7 to 9 p.m., and Tuesday, Aug. 12, from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m., will be followed by a 10:30 a.m. funeral service, all at the Robert L. Mannal Funeral Home, 6925 Frankford Ave. Interment will be in Forest Hills Cemetery.

Contributions may be made to MaST Community Charter School, 1800 Byberry Rd., Philadelphia 19116.


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