Maggie died last Thursday, just four years after she left her trusty typewriter and the always energized air of the newsroom behind for the last time. The math says she was 91, though most who knew her have a hard time attributing an age to such an indomitable spirit.
Bobbie Evans stood in the doorway in her nightgown, peering through the driving snow watching her mother’s car pull into her driveway, a police cruiser right behind it, lights flashing.It was 10:30 p.m.
“Oh, Bobbie, I’m so glad you’re up,” Maggie Mills said, climbing out of the driver’s seat.
Carver Police Officer David Harriman squinted through a veil of snowflakes at his former English teacher.
“Hi, Mrs. Evans, I followed your mum home because she was all over the road and she wouldn’t pull over,” he said.
Maggie, barely tall enough to see over the car’s dashboard, turned piercing eyes on him.
“I know how to drive!” she said. “My husband taught me to drive in the middle of the road when it snows.”
“Why didn’t you pull over?” Harriman asked helplessly, his silhouette glowing in the flash of the cruiser’s blue lights.
“I just read in the newspaper how some people are masquerading as police officers and pulling people over to rape them!” Maggie said, studying the officer.“Aren’t you David Harriman?” she demanded.
“I changed your father’s diapers! You don’t tell me what to do!”
Harriman winced over her crack about his father, the Carver fire chief, nodded a polite goodnight and disappeared into the winter evening, leaving the indomitable Maggie Mills to her own devices.
Marguerite Ketchen was born Jan. 26, 1917. Her father was a bootlegger and a barber. Her mother was the beautiful, hard-working mother of seven. It would have been eight, but one child died at 22-months, and Maggie, who was the second oldest, never forgot her mother’s tears.
She lay on her stomach in the bedroom she shared with her sister, listening, wondering why mom was blaming dad for the tragedy. It was a mystery she never solved, and, one might argue, the beginning of Maggie-the-reporter, master sleuth. Lying there at age 7, eavesdropping on her parents’ argument, the little girl who questioned everything would, one day, make her mark as a journalist, as the tiny spitfire who got to the bottom of things in a big town called Plymouth.
She grew up in an eight-room apartment at 48 Court St. above her father’s barber shop before the family moved to 52 Russell St. She remembered her childhood vividly, sliding down a snow-covered Burial Hill; lighting tiny, illegal bonfires on High, Russell and Edes streets with neighborhood kids; and plunging headlong into Plymouth Harbor. Maggie remembered the hard times, too.
“My grandfather – sometimes he was in the money and sometimes they were poor as church mice,” Evans said. “The Unitarian Church took care of them as far as food and clothing went at times. The teachers at Mount Pleasant took care of the kids. I guess they were pretty desperate at different times. When she was marshal of the parade in 1976, I remember her saying, ‘Just think – I came from nothing. I wore dirty, old clothes to school. I had shoes with holes in them, and look where I am now.’ ”
Marguerite or Peg Ketchen, as she was called, graduated with the Plymouth High School Class of 1935. She was 18 now, and daddy’s little girl. But Dad couldn’t fulfill his promise to send her to college; there just wasn’t enough money. So Marguerite got a job in Brookline as a nanny with a family that came to love and respect her so much they sent her to Boston University, where she earned her two-year degree in English. It was a coup in those days when few women attended college, a privilege reserved primarily for boys.
Years later, after she’d married Frank Mills, when Old Colony Memorial Editor Bruce Smith transformed Marguerite Mills into Maggie Mills for the sake of a nifty byline, she saw to it that her children and grandchildren attended private school and college. She worked hard, collected cans and saved, never missing an opportunity to remind her progeny, and anyone who would listen, about the importance of education.
Maggie Mills couldn’t drive when she began as a correspondent with the Old Colony Memorial in June of 1952. She earned 10 cents for every inch of copy and didn’t know how she’d tell her husband when Smith offered her a full-time job. Frank Mills didn’t want her working, but Maggie was bored silly doing housework and visiting friends when her children went off to school. She wasn’t pleased when Smith changed her byline from Peggy Mills to Maggie Mills. But she didn’t let on she didn’t want anyone to call her Maggie.
“My favorite thing about her? I think her amazing spirit. This is a woman who learned how to drive at 50 because she wanted to keep working,” Mills’ niece, Shannon Norrie, said. “When she first learned how to drive and my parents sent me out with her, she didn’t believe in taking left turns. Sometimes you’d go in circles. She got over that eventually.”
For 52 years, Maggie Mills wrote Plymouth’s stories – the joys, the sorrows, the trials and those hilarious moments of irony. Mills’ Chiltonville Chat column became a favorite read for anyone anxious to see the lighter side of Plymouth life. Here she chronicled the humorous anecdotes of town officials, harmless foibles and the kind of gossip that brought smiles to people’s faces. But becoming a feature in the column became a threat in many households, including that of Chiltonville resident Ben Brewster.
“Most of the locals of my parents’ age experienced a mixture of thrill and embarrassment when one or another of their doings found its way into her column,” Brewster said. “My sisters regularly held the threat over our mother’s head that they would call Maggie Mills and tell her you bought a new bathing suit. It seemed effective.”
It was Maggie Mills’ passion for people and her town that made her a great writer and correspondent. She ferreted out both sides of the story and knew she was doing her job when complaints rolled in from both camps. If an official or angry resident thought they could scare Maggie Mills off a story, they quickly learned to think again. She was small and kind, but tough as nails. Nobody told Maggie Mills what to do or how to do it. It was a waste of time. But they still tried.
Maggie was in her 80s before colleagues had any luck driving her home in a snowstorm. And that was only because they grew more clever, changing the subject and steering her thoughts to some juicy information or theory about why something strange was going on at town hall. Former Old Colony Memorial Editor Nan Anastasia kept a hawk’s eye on her, sending reporters to scout out her whereabouts in a blackout, only to hear her crisp voice down the long hall, regaling the lookout with, “I’m fine! Don’t you worry about me.”
The wagging finger and the gentle jabs of the cane she refused to use were honors bestowed upon her favorite people. She defended her ability (and inalienable right) to do things her own way with force but love. It was impossible to soak her in without throwing your head back and laughing out loud. Maggie was living proof that even the impossible is not impossible, that all it takes is a little stubborn resolve and you can do just about anything. It never occurred to her that anything was out of her reach or anyone else’s, for that matter.
In 1996, then Old Colony Memorial reporter Tamson Burgess ferried Maggie Mills through a door to the New England Press Association’s award ceremony at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel. Anastasia had given Burgess strict orders to keep the purpose of this attendance under wraps. The winner of the prestigious Horace Greeley Award was announced, and Mills’ jaw dropped and her eyes lit up. Maggie Mills, the poor little girl in the hand-me-downs plagued with curiosity and intelligence had won one of the most coveted honors in journalism, given only to those newspapers and individuals whose service rises above and beyond. NEPA’s definition of the award reads “excellence, dedication, courage and effectiveness in serving the public interest.”
News is always new and so was Maggie Mills. She never really aged, whether you touched base with her in Chapter 4 of her life or Chapter 58, she was always the same Maggie – hungry for answers, digging for the inside story and for some way, any way she could be of service.
Maggie died last Thursday, just four years after she left her trusty typewriter and the always energized air of the newsroom behind for the last time. The math says she was 91, though most who knew her have a hard time attributing an age to such an indomitable spirit. And, in the end, for the lady who poured her life into the words that reported and recorded the life and times of a whole community, no words of ours will ever do her justice.