Elsewhere in these pages, and in White Memorial Presbyterian Church and in civic clubs and in gatherings of lawyers around this state, John McMillan will be eulogized in the next days as few people ever are. For he lived a life so breathtakingly big, so energetic, so full of accomplishment and love and friendship and joy that he’ll not be captured in a single speech or event.
In his professional life, John was a lawyer with many interests but he focused on lobbying, representing interests from some in the pharmaceutical business to the N.C. Railroad to the insurance industry. He perennially topped the annual lists of “best lobbyists” for business but championed causes like museums and the Boy Scouts. His life away from his business was rich and colorful and by any definition exciting.
John was called away last week, more than three years after cancer attacked him. and met unexpectedly tough resistance. John fought with every option in medical science and with a heart like one of those lions he used to see on many photographic safaris in Africa. (The final farewell will be Friday at 2 pm at White Memorial Presbyterian Church with music from John’s friends starting at 1:15.)
But finally, death came quietly and under the solemn guard of an army of people who loved him. For days, his family — wife Angie, sisters Mary and Julia and brother Robert — kept a vigil in John’s fine lodge of a house close inside Raleigh, after he’d come home from the hospital to await the inevitable with grace and dignity.
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And though he gained “Raleigh fame,” we’ll call it, as the state’s foremost lobbyist for decades, he was a mentor to two or three generations of young lawyers in every arena of that profession, and and so respected for his skills that the state Bar named an award after him.
“But don’t forget,” said John Hardin, an attorney in Manning, Fulton & Skinner who worked with John in his last years in practice, “he was also a Scout leader. He didn’t want to be remembered for just the law practice.”
Yes, yes, he was. For John was not just enthusiastic about the outdoors, he was an evangelist about it.
But he took his contemporaries, trusted friends — who trusted him, as one can see — on bigger adventures, to Africa, time and again. They returned with stories of seeing the lions, and every variety of animal the continent had to offer. (John didn’t like big game hunting.) His house was full of picture albums of those journeys.
But if one seeks a bricks and mortar memorial, one need only stop by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh, a museum John served as board chair but more importantly as tireless advocate and fund-raiser and defender. The glory of that museum is shared by many, but John McMillan’s heart beat for the place even before it gained an international reputation. Likewise his work for The Nature Conservancy and a multitude of other causes, including the North Carolina Symphony. Lots of people like to have their names on boards and bask in public recognition, but they never go in their own pockets or burn shoe leather for the cause. John did.
His last weeks were spent in reflection, and in one conversation, he said he was blessed to have known the greatest North Carolinians of his and other generations — he mentioned William Friday of the UNC system, his old UNC law dean Bill Aycock, Federal Judge Dickson Phillips. They all had in common a trait John shared, in that they treated everyone they met, meek or mogul, with the same grace. “I was,” John said, “so lucky to have known them. So lucky.”
The feeling on their part, and among those privileged to have walked the woods with John or to have shared a safari or to have learned the law with him or just to have sat with him fireside with a glass of Scotch and a cookie … well, the feeling was entirely mutual.
Jim Jenkins is the retired columnist and deputy editorial page editor of The News & Observer.