Hundreds mourn fire officer

Well-liked Mills had big heart, firefighters say

By Brian Monroe

MELBOURNE -- Tears mixed with laughter as nearly 500 firefighters and civilians gathered Monday at Ascension Catholic Church to remember Timothy "Tim" Joseph Mills Sr. -- a "bear" of a man known for his caring, humor and focus through 24 years as a firefighter.

Mills died Wednesday of a stomach illness. He was 44.

The Coral Gables native started as a 20-year-old recruit with the Eau Gallie Fire Department, working his way up to a county district chief and finally to Brevard County Fire-Rescue assistant chief of operations, the second in command.

"Tim was big in stature but also big in heart," said fire Chief Bill Farmer, who knew Mills for nearly 20 years. "There have been so many times since he passed away I wanted to talk to him and get advice from him. I can't believe anything could take Tim away from us."

Friends said Mills was well-liked.

While intense at work, he was equally gregarious and fun-loving during his annual holiday bashes. Farmer elicited chuckles at the solemn service when he recalled a rookie prank on Mills and a moment at a fast food drive-thru.

He said Mills loved to take a leap into his bunk -- until Farmer filled the burly fellow's mattress with flour and put a boot in his pillow.

Farmer remembered another time he laughed so hard he nearly "passed out" when Mills started the classic Abbott and Costello "Who's on First?" routine at the speaker of a Burger King drive-thru -- replacing the player positions with pickles and patties.

After the ceremony, his "firefighter brothers" returned the warm sentiments in force with a funeral procession nearly a mile long.

Fire engine 80, bedecked with black satin ribbons, bows and wreaths of flowers, carried Mills to Florida Memorial Gardens, where he was buried. Another engine used its ladder to raise an American flag that wafted fitfully in a light breeze. Countless other engines, trucks, cars and vans from around the area drove north from Melbourne to the cemetery.

"Tim was one of the finest officers I have ever known," said Margo Linder, who knew Mills for 14 years -- her entire career as a firefighter.

"He was cheerful, kindhearted and always had a smile on his face," she said. "I never saw him speak an angry word. He will be missed very, very much."

Jeffrey Money, Assistant Chief of Training, credited Mills with improving the department's ability to save lives. He said Mills was a key figure in a firefighter referendum that added 60 new positions and advanced life support training after wildfires raged through the county in 1998.

"That improved the safety of every citizen in the county," Money said.

Perhaps the person who gave the strongest testimony of Mills' character was his 21-year-old son, Tim Jr.

When Tim Jr. was barely 5 years old, doctors diagnosed him with leukemia and gave him little chance to reach adulthood.

"My father never had a doubt I wouldn't survive," he said. "He never left my side. He pushed me through when the pain was unbearable. I am here today because of my dad's strength, courage and determination."

Tim Jr. said his father showed the same "love, compassion and grit" that uplifted him in dark times to total strangers as a firefighter.

"I was lucky to have the good fortune to meet you," said Farmer, looking skyward. "Tim Mills, you have made me a better man."