Billy Mills arrived at KU in 1957 at age 19, earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, and went on to become an internationally heralded athlete with an Olympic gold medal, five USA track records and one world record; an officer in the United States Marine Corps; and a philanthropist and inspiration for youth. A 1962 School of Education alumnus, he will be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Kansas this May. This is his story…
Nineteen-year-old William “Billy” Mills arrived on Mount Oread in the fall of 1957, following a spectacular four years at the nearby Haskell Indian School, now Haskell Indian Nations University. He was recruited by the University of Kansas’ legendary track coach Bill Easton. Billy came to Haskell from the Oglala Lakota homeland in South Dakota where he spent his childhood on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. His Lakota name, given him by tribal elders, is Tamakoce Teki’hila.
Pine Ridge is the seventh largest reservation in the United States. Established in 1889, it occupies three counties in southwest South Dakota, and those counties are among the poorest in the U.S. Billy grew up in extreme poverty — his home, like most of the other homes on Pine Ridge, possessed only the bare necessities of life. Billy was born June 30, 1938, and had a close, loving relationship with his mom, Grace Allman Mills. “I loved my mother dearly,” he says. “She spent most of my earlier years in the hospital, and I have only three memories. I remember her reading a story to me. I remember her letting me ride my bike when my father disciplined me for not doing my chores. He went to work and she let me ride my bike back and forth as long as she could still see me. She was very ill and within a year she had passed away. I realize now she wanted to take the memory with her.” His mother died when Billy was just 8 years old, leaving his father, Sidney Mills, to raise him and his seven siblings. “My father would read to me frequently after my mother died,” says Billy. They were also fishing buddies. While fishing, his dad told him Lakota stories, gave him advice about life, and talked about the moral and physical courage required to continue the tradition of a proud Lakota warrior. Four years after his mom’s death, Billy’s dad succumbed to a long struggle with heart disease.
Billy attended the Haskell Indian School from 1953 to 1957. He thrived both as a student and an athlete at the American Indian institution that was founded in Lawrence in 1884. Mills was president of the student council and on the honor roll all four years. He tried all sports: football for one year as a pint-sized freshman, basketball for two years, cross country for three years, and track for four years. His mentor, coach and confidant at Haskell, Tony Coffin, remembered Billy’s code as an athlete: “He was a hard worker with the discipline to deny himself the pleasures others enjoyed to achieve his personal goal of athletic excellence.” Billy set records for the Kansas state outdoor and indoor mile run, breaking the indoor mile record set by another KU distance running legend, Glenn Cunningham. In cross country, Billy led Haskell to the 1956 and 1957 state championships.
Billy’s experiences at KU as an athlete and a student were bittersweet. He set a freshman record in the two-mile run, was the Big Eight Conference indoor and outdoor track and field champion in the two-mile run and was a key member of the Jayhawks’ 1959 and 1960 NCAA national track and field championship teams. Billy also excelled in cross country, leading Kansas to the Big Eight Conference championship in 1960, captaining the team in his senior year, and earning All-America honors for three years in the NCAA national cross-county championships. Despite his tremendous athletic accomplishments, Billy was deeply troubled with the racial bias blacks and American Indians faced in Lawrence and at KU. Billy was not allowed to join a fraternity. Theaters were segregated. At that time, only three streets in Lawrence — Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire — permitted Haskell students.
During his sophomore year at the NCAA national cross country championships, Billy made first team All-American. Many photographers were taking photos of the team. One photographer asked Billy to step out of the photo so only white athletes were in the picture. This happened twice at the NCAA Division 1 cross country championships. It also happened at the USA AAU national cross country championships, in which Billy placed third and was the first American to finish. This, plus disagreements regarding training philosophy, led Billy to want to return home to Pine Ridge. His former coach Tony Coffin talked him into remaining at KU. On another occasion, he traveled to Wichita to plead with Wichita State University Coach Francis “Fritz” Snodgrass to accept him as a transfer. Snodgrass told him, “Billy, I would love to have you run for me — any coach in America would. What you are experiencing is not a KU and Lawrence problem — it is America’s problem. Go back to Lawrence and do your best to make the situation better.” As Billy shares, things were so dire during this time he almost took his own life.
There was, however, a bright spot for Billy at the University of Kansas. During winter break of his junior year, he met Patricia “Pat” Harris, a fine arts major from Coffeyville, Kansas. Pat was a telephone operator at Lewis Hall during the break. Billy was trying to get a date for a party and called Lewis Hall several times asking to speak to different girls. All had gone home for break. Finally, Billy asked Pat, “Would you like to go to the party with me?” Pat replied, “I don’t go on blind dates.” Billy persisted. Pat finally agreed to meet him for a “Coke date.” Ten months later they were married. They celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary in January 2019.
TO THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
Following his graduation from KU in 1962, Billy applied to be an officer in the United States Marine Corps. He was admitted to the highly competitive Officer Candidate School and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He was assigned to Camp Pendleton, California, where his duties included helping to coordinate transportation and assisting with investigations of Marines charged with violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Billy was also classified as an athlete at a time when interservice athletic completion was at its zenith. He began training daily for his goal of representing the Marine Corps and the USA in the upcoming 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. He began incorporating speed work in his daily regimen to supplement his 100-miles-aweek long distance training runs. His goal was to qualify for the Olympic Games in the distance events.
Billy’s life changed again in 1963 when a Marine Corps physician diagnosed him with hypoglycemia. Low blood sugar explained his almost total exhaustion near the end of distance events while running at KU. Changes were made to Billy’s diet and he began monitoring his blood sugar levels. Soon he was no longer tired during his runs and had a renewed energy, both mentally and physically. By the time 1964 came around, neither sports media pundits nor track and field aficionados were thinking of Billy as a serious contender to make the Olympic team — no one except Billy and his No. 1 fan and supporter, his wife, Pat.
TO THE 1964 OLYMPICS
Billy qualified for the 10,000-meter run as well as the marathon. This would be only the third time that he had run 10,000 meters — a grueling 25-lap race. Even still, he made the finals, as did several world-class athletes, headed by the reigning world champion Ron Clarke of Australia and the equally competitive Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia. Billy stayed with the leaders beginning with the fourth lap. He briefly took the lead on lap 17. On the last lap — the 25th — he was bumped hard and knocked off balance on the final turn of the track. Regaining his composure, he made a furious final kick, sprinting to the finish line and breaking the tape ahead of Gammoudi (silver) and Clarke (bronze). Billy’s time of 28:24:4 was a new Olympic record.
His totally unexpected victory was heralded as the biggest upset in distance running in the modern Olympic Games. It was called one of the Games’ greatest moments, two notches behind “Miracle on Ice” by sports documentarian Bud Greenspan. Running Times magazine (March 2008) titled the race the No. 1 greatest distance race of all time. In The 100 Greatest Track and Field Battles of the 20th Century, Jeff Hollobaugh, former managing editor of Track and Field News, listed the race as No. 1 and Billy’s world record as number 76. Perhaps the most poignant comment came from his KU teammate, Cliff Cushman, a silver medalist in the 400-meter hurdles in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Cushman, who later was killed as an U.S. Air Force pilot on a bombing run over North Vietnam, told Billy: “I cried when you won the gold medal. Not because of what you achieved, but because of where you had to begin.”
Billy was humble and gracious in victory. He commented, “That’s about 50 seconds faster than I have run the 10,000 before — but I thought I could do it, I thought I could run that fast.” And “When the U.S. flag went up the flagpole and they played the anthem — I thought I would cry — I really did.” And when a fellow Marine hugged Billy and said, “The Marines are proud of you,” Billy replied, “I hope so. The Marines gave me a chance to run.”
AWARDS AND HONORS
Over these 50-plus years following his Olympic gold medal victory, Billy has received many honors and awards. Some of these include:
- He is enshrined in both the U.S. Track and Field and the U.S. Olympic halls of fame.
- Sports Illustrated selected him the South Dakota Athlete of the 20th Century.
- He ranked No. 1 in the world in the 10,000 Meters in 1964 and No. 3 in 1965.
- The NCAA awarded him its highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award.
- In 2012, President Barack Obama presented him the Presidential Citizens Medal.
- In November 2018, South Middle School in Lawrence was renamed Billy Mills Middle School.