Jerry Leath Mills

Published 12:03 am Thursday, July 26, 2012

Washington, N.C.  — Jerry Leath Mills passed away unexpectedly at his home here on Sunday, July 22nd, 2012. He was born in Burlington, N.C., to Alice Kerr Leath Mills and Gordon W. Mills on June 1st, 1938. He carried Burlington, its history, its people and his experiences, with him wherever he lived and traveled.
He is survived by his wife Rachel Victoria Mills; son William Leath Mills, wife Kathy Lynn Goins and their daughter Ava Catherine Mills; son Mark Arthur Mills; daughter Mary Alice Mills, husband Paul Timothy Myoda and their daughters Marlowe Leath Mills-Myoda and Emerson Mae Mills-Myoda; also, Rachel’s son Joseph Louis Weiner and wife Tricia Becker Weiner; and half-sister Bettie Ann Hawk Croft and her two children. His Leath and Phillips cousins were also especially close to him. He was predeceased by his parents and by Rachel’s son Michael Alexander .
Jerry Leath Mills (nicknamed “Jake” by his grandfather after an old Burlington character, Jake Tate) graduated from Walter M. Williams High School, Burlington, attended one year at East Carolina College, Greenville, N.C., and then transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was deeply inspired by the teaching, writing, and mentoring of the late O.B. Hardison, Jr. After Mills graduated Phi Beta Kappa, with honors in English, from Carolina in 1960, he was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study at Harvard University, his M.A. (1961), serving as a teaching fellow (1963-65), and earning his Ph.D. in 1968. He returned to Chapel Hill, joined the University’s faculty, and for thirty-one years was a popular, much-loved, award-winning teacher of English Renaissance literature, and a Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Professor (Standard Oil of Indiana Teaching Award 1969; a Tanner Award for Undergraduate Teaching 1978). He earned international renown as a first-tier scholar of Edmund Spenser and was an authority on the poetic works of Sir Walter Ralegh. He published Sir Walter Ralegh: A Reference Guide (G.K. Hall 1986) and, with O.B. Hardison, Jr., The Forms of Imagination: An Anthology of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama (Prentice-Hall 1972), and with Louis D. Rubin, Jr. to A Writer’s Companion (LSU 1995). After retiring from UNC in 1996, Mills immediately went back to the classroom, alternating for a decade between teaching appointments at East Carolina University and Colby-Sawyer College, New London, N.H. Professor Mills continued to be active on the editorial board of the journal Studies in Philology, the magazine he loved and on which he had started working in 1965, serving as SP’s editor from 1980 to 1996.
For many years Mills reviewed books for the News & Observer, and his wise counsel and warm companionship were much sought after and highly valued by many of the South’s best contemporary authors. His 1996 Southern Literary Journal essay “Equine Gothic: the Dead Mule as Generic Signifier in Southern Literature” is widely considered a classic, and was featured in The New York Times, among other publications, not long after it was published. The article has been credited with inspiring a light-hearted literary cottage industry of  “dead mule spotting” in Southern fiction. A phenomenal storyteller, able to quote extensively from a wealth of literature with precise comedic timing and amazingly accurate historical fact, Mills’ humor and narrative mastery have also been on display in such short pieces as “Store Lunch” and “Chitlin Function,” both of which appeared in Southern Cultures; he relished rhythm-and-blues and roots music, and he contributed original lyrics and stories to the musicals King Mackerel & The Blues Are Running Pump Boys and Dinettes. He had extensive, lifelong experience afloat and afield across central, eastern and coastal North Carolina, hunting doves, quail, waterfowl, rabbits, and deer, and fishing everywhere from his Aunt Elizabeth’s Alamance County farm pond to Big Flatty Creek, the Pamlico River, the Atlantic Ocean and the glacier lakes of New Hampshire.
After his retirement from the UNC faculty in 1996, Mills moved to Washington, N.C., in order to partake fully of the coastal North Carolina culture and environment that he loved. He remained involved in literary pursuits, continuing to publish numerous book reviews and participating actively in the annual meetings of the Thomas Wolfe Society; he was also involved in the awarding of the O.B. Hardison, Jr., Poetry Prize at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. In retirement, especially, the Millses traveled extensively, visiting the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Italy, as well as New England, California, the Deep South, and other regions of the United States.
Jake Mills possessed a rare genius for friendship, and his friends, who along with his devoted family deeply mourn him, are legion. A memorial for him will be held at the UNC Memorial Grove in Chapel Hill on Sunday, July 29, at 11:00 a.m., with reception following. Friends in Washington may visit on Thursday evening at the Mills home.
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Paul Funeral Home & Crematory of Washington is honored to serve the Mills family.