Community to come together Sunday to honor Johnny Mills’ life

Published 5:41 pm Friday, January 13, 2023

By Angela Cutrer
Elizabethton Star
Johnny Blair Mills, 77, died Dec. 15, 2022, at his Elizabethton home, surrounded by his loving family. And oh, do they have memories — many, many memories to recall of this extraordinary man. And they aren’t the only ones.
C.Y. Peters has memories of Mills as one of the best players for the Cyclones and Tennessee Volunteers. In fact, Mills’ fantastical football career was so exceptional that in January 1967, the city of Elizabethton declared Jan. 16 as “Johnny Mills Day,” complete with a huge parade that Tennessee football coach Doug Dickey attended, Peters said. Mills even received a key to the city for his outstanding football play at Elizabethton High School and the University of Tennessee, where he set records that stood for 36 years.
Mills was born to Harold “Doc” Mills and Lois Mills in Kentucky. His father opened an optometrist office in 1950, bringing the family to Elizabethton. Peters wrote that “Johnny once said ‘everyone needs something that they can be well at, that people look up to, that they can achieve fame, and where people can brag on you. In my case it was football. Football was one thing I could do better in than most people.’”
Peters related that Mills, who played for the Vols from 1963-66, broke numerous records that have stood since 1948: most yards in a game, most catches in a game, most total receptions in a season and others. Mills was named one of Tennessee’s greatest players; was selected first team to the All-Southeastern Conference as an end; played in the 1965 Bluebonnet Bowl that the Vols won over Tulsa 27-6; and played in the Gator Bowl that the Vols won 18-12 over Syracuse. Mills was inducted into the Carter County Sports Hall of Fame in 2012 and was also a member of the Northeast Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and the Elizabethton High School Athletics Hall of Fame.
However, football wasn’t the only significant achievement that made him a treasure to the people of this area. Though Mills was drafted by the San Diego Chargers, a knee injury ended his playing career. After graduating from UT, he moved back home in 1978 after working several different jobs, including as assistant football coach at Tulsa University and then as an assistant high school coach — and later head coach — at Harlan (Ky.) High School.
Mills wrote his own story in a letter to the Elizabethton Star when he and his wife decided to close their business after 40 years:
When I came home I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I was through coaching. I looked at different things, but nothing seemed right. Then, one day I went to King Springs and looked at some greenhouses that were for sale. When I walked into one of the greenhouses I had the thought that this would be a good way to make a living. So, I bought them, tore them down, and moved them to a piece of land on my dad’s farm and put them back up. Mills Greenhouse started in a former pasture and tobacco patch.
For the first few years, I mostly sold potted plants and baskets to florists in the area. Then along came 1984, a very big year. No. 1. Carla and Hannon agreed to join me in Elizabethton, and we became a family. No. 2. The new Bristol Highway was completed and it ran right by our greenhouses. We put up a selling area and began to sell to the public.
Business was slim at first, and gradually it began to grow. We always wanted to separate ourselves from the chain stores, so we concentrated on two or three areas. We carried only quality plants. We could advise our customers as to which plants would do best in sun or shade. We could suggest tomatoes and other vegetables that would suit the garden size. But, I think the most important thing we did was to make our customers feel welcome. We did business the old-timey way. We hung a porch swing on the front of our check-out building. That swing quietly said, “Let’s sit and visit a while and then we will do some business.” I didn’t know any other way to do it. That was the way my dad did it and the way my brother still does it.
Now, it’s been almost 40 years since we started the business, and it’s time for another chance. Carla and I are closing the greenhouse portion of our business. We have two beautiful grandsons that we want to spend more time with. We want to sleep late and get up with nothing particular we have to do.
…This is our home, you are our friends, and God is great. We feel blessed beyond measure. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.
Mills Greenhouse and Landscape closed in 2019, though son Hannon remained as an expert in his own landscaping business.
“He was a good guy, a local businessman and always really nice,” said Danny Deal, District 4 commissioner for Carter County, who knew Mills through his business.
Johnny Mills is survived by his loving wife, Carla; son, Hannon and his wife Jennifer; and two grandsons, Brody and Holston Howard. Other survivors include his sister, Kim, and her husband, Larry Salyer; his brother, Bobby, and his wife, Cheryl; and his brother, David, and his wife, Cathy. He left behind several nieces, nephews and their children, as well as dear friends in the community.
Those friends have been helping to set up a casual Celebration of Life ceremony on Sunday, Jan. 15, at the Elizabethton High School gymnasium, arranged with Hathaway-Percy Funeral and Cremation Services. Live streaming through Facebook will be available and the service is open to the public.
Friends from Mills’ time at UT will be speaking at the service to share stories about him. Doors open at 2 p.m., with the ceremony beginning at 2:30 p.m. Tables will be available for the speakers and their guests and the bleachers will be available for the public.

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