Donna Whitmer was panicked:
“Oh no! We didn’t sign up for all that! We paid for a standard room, not the top suite!”
She and her family were going on a Norwegian Cruise to the Caribbean to make some final memories with their teenage son, Aaron, not trying to drain their bank account.
In August of 2007, 15-year-old Aaron Whitmer started to show symptoms of what soon would be diagnosed as a malignant brain tumor. Just a week earlier the family had moved next door to the Beavercreek home of Bob Mills and his wife Marcy.
Bob was an up-by-the-bootstraps success story who had come to Dayton in 1978 from Erie, Pennsylvania with $200 in his pocket and would go on to become a Beavercreek-based construction and real estate magnate and a know-no-bounds philanthropist who orchestrated the most successful charity events in the history of the Miami Valley.
The cause that resonated the most with him was cancer. While he had survived stage 4 melanoma in 2003, he would later lose Marcy to metastatic cancer in 2009. And 10 weeks after her death, his seven-year-old granddaughter Ally was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
When Aaron was diagnosed, Marcy was already battling the disease and she struck a kinship with him. Bob did, too.
“Bob took a real liking to Aaron,” said Dr. Daniel Whitmer, Aaron’s dad and the family physician for Bob, Marcy and their two daughters, Janel and Melissa.
“Throughout our son’s illness, Bob would bring over little gag gifts, things that would cheer Aaron up and make him laugh. Bob always felt laughter was the best medicine and he went out of his way to make our son feel better.” Dr. Whitmer said when it became evident their son was not going to recover, Aaron’s oncologist pulled them aside and said, “You need to start creating memories while Aaron is still reasonably able to do things.”
That’s what prompted Donna to book the cruise for her husband, herself, Aaron and his girlfriend.
Mills got a private plane to fly them to their South Florida port and then had another surprise when the boarded.
As Donna debated the room assignment, Dr. Whitmer said the phone rang: “It was Bob asking, ‘How you like your room?’” He had had them upgraded to the best suite at the very top of the massive ship.
“That’s what Bob did,” Whitmer said. “He was that kind of guy.” And that’s why he said this past week was so difficult for he and his wife.
Wednesday, July 15th, was the 12th anniversary of Aaron’s death.
And two days before that – on Monday – 70-year-old Bob Mills died at his home after battling growing health problems the past couple of years.
Thursday, Dan sent me a photo of his son and Bob sitting in the office from which Mills ran Synergy and Mills Development, which are his construction company and his real estate development firm.
Aaron sat behind the big desk, wagging his finger as though he was lecturing Bob.
“I’ll never forget that,” Dr. Whitmer said. “Afterward he told me, ‘Dad, some day when I get well, I want to be like Bob and do great things for people.”
And Mills did a lot of great things.
His company built over $1 billion in Class A office space in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. He partnered for a good while with Sam Morgan and they developed much of the 675 corridor near the WPAFB and especially Pentagon Blvd.
Mills was also a grand supporter of Wright State athletics.
“When we were trying to build up a cadre of folks to support the program, Bob became one of the primary pillars of that,” said Mike Cusack, WSU’s former athletics director. “Yet for everything he did for us -- and he was just fabulous for Wright State – what he did for the community was far more important.”
Doug Sorrell, the popular auctioneer from Miamisburg, was friends with Mills and officiated many of his fundraisers. In six events alone, he said they raised over $5.6 million.
“Here’s a guy who built up a huge portfolio of assets, but he’s not going to be remembered for this building or that one,” Sorrell said. “Everyone is going to remember him for being so extremely generous to people.”
That thought was shared by Bob Grant, who took over as WSU athletics director when Cusack retired:
“Through all his philanthropy work he’s had to have touched tens of thousands of lives in the Miami Valley.”
And I know one he touched:
Several months after his granddaughter was diagnosed with ALL, he was coaxed into running for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Man of the Year in Dayton. The winner is the one who raises the most money for cancer aid and research.
With Sorrell as his auctioneer, he put on a gala event at Fox Hill, his magnificent home in Beavercreek that’s surrounded by 50 acres of woodlands, a three-acre pond and all kinds of amenities to make it a play land for his grandkids.
I wrote about the event, which raised nearly $500,000 and was the springboard that not only made him not the local winner, but the National LLS Man of the Year. He raised more money than anyone ever had in the history of the event.
Credit: Jan Underwood
Credit: Jan Underwood
Some 33 days after my story appeared, I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML).
I had some people in the community really step up for me – Sam Morgan and Bill Hosket were two – and I began treatment at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus.
But no one stepped to the fore more than Mills, who did without fanfare.
He had remarried and he and his wife Barbara picked me up and drove me over to the James, where they had a meeting set up with Dr. Michael Caligiuri, then the CEO of hospital and the Richard J. Solove Research Institute.
Once we were there, he handed the renowned leukemia researcher a check for $100,000 in my name to be put toward CML research.
I was stunned.
But like Dr. Whitmer said: “That’s what Bob does.”
I’m alive today and cancer free – knock on wood – thanks to the kind of research that Mills funded. It has made CML a treatable cancer with a high survival rate.
Ally – who faced far steeper odds and underwent intense treatment in those early years – has not only survived, she’s flourished.
“She just graduated high school and is headed to the University of Cincinnati to study nursing,” Morgan said. “They were afraid they were going to lose her and now she’s thriving.”
“When she applied at UC she had to write an essay on what she wanted to do,” said her dad, Jerad Barnett, who’s married to Janel and now serves as the CEO of Synergy and Mills Development. “She had been in the hospital so much and she talked a lot about how instrumental the nurses were in her care. Now she wants to do the same for someone else.”
Grant touched on that other day: “Bob’s daughters and now his granddaughter already are following some of the same path he did. I see them carrying the torch for other people’s lives.
“So Bob Mills’ legacy is going to live on.”
Started at the bottom
Mills worked his way through Gannon University in Erie. He said he had 13 different jobs while in college.
Once he moved to Dayton, he started at the bottom and worked his way up the business ladder.
With right hand men like Barnett and Domenico Stolfo, he built Synergy and Mills Development into a pair of hugely successful firms.
But in 2003, he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma.
As he was wheeled into surgery he said he made a promise to the Lord: If he could survive the ordeal he would dedicate the rest of his life to helping others battle cancer.
He did survive, but he didn’t know his heavenly pact soon would involve his own family.
“I remember him saying how Marcy told him: ‘Bob, you need to quit giving your money to politicians and start doing something good with it,’” Sorrell said with a laugh.
“And the first event he and I did was for the Grandview Medical Foundation. It was to underwrite an oncologist and it was understood many of the people she would treat would not have insurance. We raised $424,000 for that effort.”
Mills raised more than that after Ally’s diagnosis and then in 2014, he and Barbara launched the Gala of Hope Foundation, which benefits area hospitals and non-profits. In six years they raised over $6.5 million.
“I don’t think there are many things in the nation that are bigger and touch more lives than the Gala of Hope does for people here,” Grant said. “It sits all alone in the region.”
Special connection to Wright State
“When the First Four is held at Dayton and those teams come over to our place to practice, sometimes I’ll make a point to get to the Mills Morgan Center before them,” Grant said. “I like to watch them come into the building and see their jaws drop as they think, ‘How the heck does Wright State have this?’”
The state-of-the-art facility is a credit to the trio who donated it, he said:
“If it wasn’t for Bob Mills, Sam Morgan and Fred Setzer the building would not be there. That’s a monstrous legacy. And it’s not only been great for recruiting athletes, but for coaches, too.
“Brad Brownell does not come to Wright State without that building. He was down to us, Ball State and Duquesne and he’ll tell you that building tipped it.”
Mills connection to WSU began when he moved to Dayton and was mentored by local businessman Erv Nutter, who financed the Nutter Fieldhouse and EJ Nutter Training Facility at his alma mater, the University of Kentucky.
“He told me the best thing I could do for our community was to be a philanthropist,” Mills once told me. “And he said a good way to do it was with athletics because when sports are successful they draw attention.”
Mills began to back WSU athletics in numerous ways.
Jim Brown, the longtime Raiders basketball coach and now the Raiders’ radio broadcaster, remembered Mills funding trading cards featuring WSU players. Later he said Bob and Marcy redid the team’s utilitarian dressing room at the Nutter Center.
Every year when the athletic department had its annual auction, Mills was the first to buy something. And he was one of the first to sit in a premium courtside seat at the Nutter Center and he turned his box at the top of the arena into a stylish luxury suite.
As his heath worsened in recent years, he made few appearances at games, but Jared and Janel and their family have remained front row regulars.
Over the years some of the WSU players worked summer jobs at Mills’ construction company. He had a special connection with Marcus May and especially DaShaun Wood, the Horizon League Player of the Year and WSU Hall of Famer who had a long pro career overseas.
“We even had a special handshake when I came out to the court,” a subdued Woods said. “We had a connection. I think he saw the same hunger in me that he had.
“I learned as much as I could from him. He became a part of my family and that’s why, honestly man, his death has torn me apart. I’m hurting really bad. It’s a big loss to all of Wright State and really the entire community. “
And next Friday, July 24, the community will have a unique way to say goodbye to him in these COVID-19, social-distancing times. The family, which will be gathered at the pavilion, will have a drive through visitation from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Fox Hill estate. A private ceremony will follow.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests a memorial contribution in Mills’ honor be made to the Gala of Hope (galaofhope.net) which supports so many causes in the Miami Valley.
With that in mind, Wood offered the perfect eulogy:
“You couldn’t ask for a better man than him.
“To me, Bob Mills is the definition of what a good man is.”
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