[A eulogy originally published Wednesday, January 11, 2012]
UCSD’s Biology Professor Emeritus, Stanley E. Mills passed away, I just recently learned. At 89, he’d lived life to the fullest—and I don’t mean that in the usual trite sense. He modeled self-improvement: he quit smoking late in life, and promoted a scholarly regimen for sound nutrition. He showed it’s not too late to expand one’s comfort zones: late in life he’d go dancing, lift weights, and learn piano. He never stopped educating others, and himself.
Before college, I came across Dr. Mills through my Pre-Med brother who’d worked in the former’s lab. Later, as a distinctly non-science major at UCSD, I’d nonetheless tramp over to the ivy-covered Old Biology Building. There I’d ride the service-style elevator up to Stan’s office– until such time he berated me and I began to take the stairs–slouch on an aged couch, and shoot the breeze with the grand old man.
He was unassuming, magnanimous and hilarious. His utilitarian office was filled with books piled high, papers piled higher, and not much more. For a venerated professor at a top-tier institution, it was pointedly austere. Stan had no need for embellishment. He’d wear a dated Members Only jacket–sleeves rolled up (natch), sported sort-of-scruffy trousers, and drove an ancient American beater. Memorably, he would wryly admonish particular colleagues: those driving certain leather-upholstered-imports.
He had the means to be immodest, but he gave to others. He funded ambitious after-school programs for kids, so they could stay out of trouble and prosper. It was money better spent and he did so without fanfare. Only now do I spill the beans. He’d mock its “y’know” and “like” colloquialisms, but he had faith in the younger generation of students; he did not condescend. His pithy profanities were disarming: with Stan you didn’t sense a generation gap.
Ultimately, Dr. Mills directed me into law. I had proposed an alternative career path, which was respectable enough. But he didn’t beat around the bush and basically told me to not f— around: go to law school. He was wiser than I; I accepted his blush-worthy recommendation letter and well, here I am.
Stan’s health regimen had a lot to do with combating free radicals and naming culinary heroes and villains. Broccoli sprouts= good. Liver pâté= bad. I won’t volunteer more, because he was also of the (facetious?) opinion that some things (like the secrets of longevity) are best kept among those close to one’s heart. He did prove his point, by the way. It was a tragic accident–not disease that took him from us. But diet aside, he expressed that the main thing was exercise. Or, rather: “not sitting on your ass all day.” (Which I presently attest to, whilst sitting on my ass).
Stan was one of the founding professors at my alma mater, University of California in San Diego, which opened in 1960 and had immediate impact upon its La Jolla setting. The inception of a diversely-staffed school compelled the locals to abandon racial covenants, being the La Jolla tradition of barring home-sales to “undesirables.” Stan would later promote diversity at UCSD through tutoring of minority students.
Dr. Mills also promoted UCSD’s mission as the anti-jockocracy. He pushed for deliberate departure from dispensing athletic scholarships or promoting sports at the expense of academics. So, UCSD has never had “real” team sports and all the hoopla that goes with it. Then again, it maintains its superlative academic ranking.
After graduation, the frequent bull sessions inevitably tapered. Regretfully with time, I saw him less.
A fitting epitaph is something quite simple he said:
If you’re not constantly striving to learn… then you’re just using up air.