He is a ubiquitous presence, camera slung on his neck, quick to share his opinion, ready to step in if action is called for, and equally prepared to recruit others to his cause.
Hugh McMillan, retired CIA agent and Key Peninsula activist for four decades, will be 94 this year and shows little sign of slowing down. And Janice, his wife of nearly 68 years, while also being an active volunteer, has kept the home fires burning to make his work possible.
Hugh was born in British Columbia in 1926 and moved to Tacoma at age 3. He describes himself as a middling student academically but a “self-proclaimed big man on campus” in junior high and high school — serving as yell leader and student body president. He joined the Navy in 1945, but World War II ended while he was still in training and he was released. In 1948, he enrolled in what is now the University of Puget Sound.
It was there he met Janice. “I started ogling her in ’48 but we didn’t go on our first date until ’50,” he said. When he moved to Berkeley, Calif., for graduate work, Janice and her family moved to nearby Alameda, allowing the budding romance to continue.
Hugh went to the University of Washington to pursue a Ph.D., but a car accident left him strapped for cash. He went to Fort Lewis to look for a job, but the receptionist declared him overqualified for labor and handed him applications for other opportunities. Among them was one for the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency.
Hugh was hired as an operations officer; a recruiter of spies. His original reason for joining, he said, was to give himself an entree into public office. From age 10, when he met then Congressman John Coffee, he wanted to be a representative. He figured a background in the CIA would be just the ticket when he decided to run.
In 1952 Hugh moved to Washington, D.C. Janice joined him six months later and four days after that they were married. “We lived in a furnished apartment that cost $115 a month, with plastic curtains that had holes in them,” she said.
Their first posting was in Japan. “We were there for six years. Our kids were born there,” Janice said. They went on to consulate and embassy postings that included India, Turkey and Egypt with intervals in Washington, D.C. I loved the spy business,” he said, “but after 26 years I was pretty well burned out.
In 1964 Hugh met U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who said he’d give his blessing to him to run as U.S. representative. “I was in the stratosphere for about three days,” Hugh said. And then, as he realized how much more of the world remained to be seen through his job, “I came crashing down.”
Jackson suggested he wait until the Republican incumbent retired the following term, and the two-year wait made sense to them both. But the Democratic challenger won that year in an upset and went on to serve six terms. Hugh had no intention of running against him or the men who followed him — Norm Dicks and Derek Kilmer — and his dream of becoming a representative came to an end.
Janice kept the household running and worked at times during their postings, helping to file reports. In New Delhi she started a boy scout troop for sons Lance and Marshall. And, she said, “I was very good at big receptions, at meeting people that Hugh would be interested in. I’d say, ‘Oh, I want you to meet my husband, and that way we got to know a lot of people.’ ”
“She was superb,” Hugh said. “She was so effective that when we landed in Egypt we weren’t met by Americans. We were met by the Lebanese consul, who gave her a bouquet and took us to dinner.”
Hugh retired in 1978. “I loved the business,” he said, “but after 26 years I was pretty well burned out.” There was never any question as to where they would move after retirement. “Janice is a Stadium girl. I’m a Lincoln boy. The Pacific Northwest is home to us.”
They knew they wanted to live on the water. From the moment they saw their house in Home they knew it was where they would settle. “I walked to the bulkhead, looked down and could see the pebbles through four feet of clear water,” Hugh said.
They busied themselves settling in, and then tragedy struck. Marshall, then 19, died in a boating accident in 1980. The family was devastated. Hugh credits the KP fire department with giving him something to live for. The fire chief called and asked him to join as a volunteer firefighter. Soon after that Hugh helped save the life of a heart attack victim. “I figured I had a reason to hang around for a while,” he said.
Hugh went on to hold an elected office after all; he first became president of the Fire Fighters Association, then was elected fire commissioner for 14 years. He served as a Pierce County Fire Commissioner and as a board member of the Washington State Fire Commissioners Association. For that work he has been recognized as a lifetime honorary Washington state fire commissioner and volunteer.
Hugh brought certain skills from the CIA to his work on the Key Peninsula. “My son calls me gregarious, and that helped in the business,” he said. It also helped him recruit himself into the KP Lions Club and to recruit others to join causes he cares about. “Lots of people would like to do things but no one has invited them,” he said.
Hugh did not limit his energy to the fire department. He was a founding or early member of many local organizations, including the Lions Club, Citizens Against Crime, the food bank now at Key Peninsula Community Services, Communities in Schools of Peninsula, Peninsula Schools Education Foundation, Peninsula Emergency Preparedness Coalition and Hope Recovery Center.
Students continue to be his passion. He and Janice have volunteered as tutors for years. “Hugh is an incredible champion for the children in our community,” said Leslie Livingood, who teaches special education at Voyager Elementary School. “I am the co-chair of Voyager’s literacy night Camp Read a Lot and he has come every year since the event began.”
A frequent and early contributor to KP News, Hugh now writes a long-running column in The Peninsula Gateway called Kids’ Corner. He said his goal is to bring the two peninsulas together, and sharing the success stories of students every week is a way to do that. Daughter-in-law Sheri Ahlheim, who teaches at Peninsula High School and is married to son Lance, said, “You’ll go to their house for a bit, and McMillan checks the clock, grabs his camera and jacket and exclaims, ‘Oh! I’ve got to go photograph some kids.’ ”
Hugh’s mantra is “Don’t tell me what’s wrong. Come on in and help me make it right.” His work to make things right has been recognized on many fronts. The Pierce County Council proclaimed April 22, 2006, as Hugh McMillan Day; the Gig Harbor Chamber of Commerce named him Citizen of the Year in 2010; Gig Harbor Rotary North awarded him their Star Award in 2014; Rep. Derek Kilmer recognized his 90th birthday in a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, calling him the unofficial mayor of the Key Peninsula; and last spring a plaque celebrating his service was installed in front of the Key Center Fire Station.
“If it was up to me, I’d make him governor of the Key Peninsula,” said former Peninsula School Board member Marcia Harris. Her husband Jeff, a longtime local activist, said, “Hugh is one of a kind among many community leaders that I have had the pleasure of working with and knowing who have the ‘Give Back DNA’ that the world so desperately needs more of. The Key and the world are the better because of Hugh, especially the children and our future.”
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