Herman Mills

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Herman Mills, 1924-2009: Professional boxer, trained Chicago area fighters for 50 years

Known for dancing ability and positive approach to sport

By Trevor Jensen

Tribune reporter

October 16, 2009

Herman Mills, a quick-footed 138-pounder who fought on the undercard of a Joe Louis exhibition bout during boxing’s golden era, worked with young fighters in Chicago gyms for more than 50 years.

Mr. Mills, 85, died of colon cancer Friday, Oct. 9, in Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, said Mike Joyce, who runs the boxing program at Leo High School.

Mr. Mills had been a volunteer coach at Leo for 12 years, and since his wife died four years ago had been living with Joyce. The former resident of the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood had been spry until only recently, working with the boxers at Leo during the day and playing bingo in various Catholic churches at night.

Always upbeat, his stories from a lifetime of hard knocks quickly shot down any gripes the boys at Leo brought to the gym, Joyce said. “The kids kept him young, and he helped them mature,” Joyce said.

Born in Texas, Mr. Mills came to Chicago when he was six years old. Details of his early life are sketchy, but he always said he was given an education and shelter by the nuns at St. Elizabeth Church, Joyce said.

During World War II, he fought in Europe and was wounded in Sicily, Joyce said.

Though his formal education was unremarkable, he studied in a number of fields in his younger years, among them tap-dancing and boxing, tailoring and TV repair.

As boxing boomed in the postwar years, he was a regular on fight cards around Chicago, fighting in featured 10-round bouts at bygone venues like Marigold Gardens and White City.

“When you were a 10-rounder in those days, you were a good fighter. He wasn’t some six-rounder,” said Ed Kelly, former head of the Chicago Park District,and noted boxing buff. “During that time, he was one of the better known fighters in Chicago.”

In 1948, Mr. Mills fought Don Lupo as a precursor to an exhibition match pitting heavyweight greats Louis and Billy Conn at a sold-out International Amphitheatre.

While he worked for the U.S. Postal Service for a number of years, Mr. Mills never lost touch with the local boxing community and was a regular at the Midwest Gym on the West Side and Johnny Coulon’s gym at 63rd and Woodlawn.

He was a coach in Kelly’s thriving Park District boxing program, working at Fuller Park and Seward Park.

“He was so gentle and so quiet, like a grandfather — which he was,” Kelly said.

“He was a pretty good trainer,” but he was never hooked up with a single boxer for long, said Chicago boxer and onetime World Boxing Association heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell, who met Mr. Mills at the Midwest Gym in the 1950s.

To break up the grind of training, Mr. Mills would occasionally jump into a rapid-fire tap dance, bringing smiles to the faces of even the toughest pugs, Terrell said.

Mr. Mills outlived two wives, Ometress Steel, who died in 1967; and Juanita McMillan, who died in 2005.

Survivors include a son, Maurice: a daughter, Bernadina; nine grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and five great-great-grandchildren.

Services were held.

ttjensen@tribune.com

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