When the Los Angeles Times wrote Kay Mill’s obituary, it noted that she had no survivors.
Kay’s memorial service on February 27, 2011 was a clear contradiction of that statement. She may not have had siblings or children, but clearly her reach was wide and deep among her friends, colleagues and her neighbors in Los Angeles. About 75 attended the service at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica.
“She had family in every city in every part of the world,” said Jason Mills, son of Dean Mills, Kay’s dear friend and longtime colleague, who is now dean of the University Missouri’s School of Journalism and was also at the service.
Simone Madhui, who lives half the year in France, spoke of Kay’s determination to live the dream of learning French and living in Paris, which she did for three months. Madhui took her to the village where she grew up to help Kay research her novel and spoke of the wonderful look that would come over Kay’s face as she completed a long and complicated sentence in French.
“She was totally comfortable with who she was,” said Wendy Lazarus, founder and co-president of the Children’s Partnership and a long-time friend. She met Kay in the 1980s when she was a source for the LA Times’ editorials Kay wrote on maternity care for indigent women.
Lazarus called Kay “refreshingly direct” and spoke about her full-throttle laugh.
“Her work was a weapon to fight injustice,” she said.
Kay was outraged when she found that indigent women in LA County had to wait 19 weeks to get pre-natal care. Her editorials helped get a law passed in 1988 providing pre-natal services for 30,000 low-income women. She brought passion and conviction to everything she touched, Lazarus said. And that included tennis and Scrabble, in which she was fiercely competitive.
Her long-time friend Geraldine Kennedy recalled their intense Scrabble games.
“Kay was a better speller. I was a better faker,” she said, adding fondly that their last game was on Dec. 29.
Long-time neighbor Erin King related the early days as Kay’s neighbor when she and her husband and a newborn. Up all night with the crying baby, King was in the driveway they shared with Kay in the morning, walking with the child on her hip as it still cried. Kay emerged to head out for her tennis game and quipped, “Does that thing come with an off switch?”
But despite the tart remark, King said Kay was a wonderful counselor and mentor to her children throughout the years, giving them advice on college and on journalism.
Jason Mills and his brother, Jesse, also recalled the large role Kay played in their lives as children.
Jesse spoke of her as an ally in many ways, including food. She always had a forbidden Coke or two in her fridge, he said. And despite not having any children of her own, she had an uncanny ability to pick out just the right children’s books to give as gifts. She continued the tradition when Jesse had children of his own, he said.
“She was a tireless champion of human rights,” he said. “And she understood the power of patience and persistence.”
A number of JAWS members attended the memorial. I came from Albuquerque. Former Presidents Gina Setser, Dawn Garcia and Pam Moreland also came, traveling from Atlanta and northern California, respectively. Angelenos Linda Deutsch, Geneva Overholser, and Lauren Whaley also came and of course Kay’s close friend, Connie Koenenn, was on hand to welcome all of us. Others had planned to attend, but Nina Zacuto had a family emergency with her father in Las Vegas and our tireless executive director, Becky Day, was in bed in Modesto fighting a bad cold.
Kay set an extraordinary example of what it means to be a good friend, Dawn said. She read passages from Kay’s application to the Knight Fellowship program, where Dawn is deputy director and where Kay was a fellow in the late 1970s.
“There was never a time I didn’t want to be a reporter,” Kay wrote in her application.
Pam Moreland spoke about Kay’s passion for baseball, a passion that included the Washington Senators when Kay lived on the East Coast, and later the Los Angeles Dodgers. She recalled one memorable game in 1985 between the Mets and the Dodgers that they watched together, as well as their last outing, a Dodgers-Giants game last August in San Francisco, where Kay cheered loudly for the LA team, oblivious to the vengeful looks from local fans.
“Baseball and language go together,” Pam said. “For me, baseball and Kay will always go together.”
Indeed, Kay had 2,500 baseball cards in her collection, said Susan Henry, who has been gathering Kay’s papers together. The search of Kay’s basement yielded the trove of cards and one of the most wonderful surprises: An autobiography that Kay wrote in school when she was 13 years old. The title was pure Kay: “Scheherazade Speaks, or The 4,851 Nights.”
Even the story of her own birth indicates that Kay had heard the journalism call early.
“On the evening of February 4, 1941, a Bethesda book club was interrupted by a phone call from an excited man. After receiving the phone call, the hostess returned to the group and reported the details of the conversation. ‘Captain and Mrs. Mills have a baby girl, born this afternoon at 4:30 at Garfield Hospital in Washington, D.C. The baby weighed eight pounds, one ounce, and was twenty inches long.’
That is the reason my mother was not present at the February 4 meeting of the book club.”
She wrote that she was looking forward to two more exciting years in her school.
“…and if they are as happy, adventurous, and interesting as the one we are now completing, Scheherazade will have many more wonderful stories to tell, on many more nights.”
I think we all know how that turned out. Thank you, Kay, for continuing to tell those stories.