The late Irving Harris was a businessman, philanthropist and early education evangelist who emphasized the importance of “bringing the baby into the room” when discussing the importance of quality early learning for our nation’s most at-risk children.
In that spirit, today we introduce a new early education blog by bringing a baby of sorts, Chuck Mills, into the room.
Mills was a baby, but that was more than four decades ago. In those early years, he attended Head Start, the nation’s most prominent early education program for low income children and their families. Today, at 48, Mills is a successful business banker and former Marine—a living embodiment of what Nobel economists and other researchers mean when they talk about early education being one of the most cost-effective public investments available.
Mills is featured in a new online video campaign—called “Our Head Start”—that The First Five Years Fund is kicking off this month. “Our Head Start” showcases a series of short videos of Head Start alumni who have grown up to become productive, creative, contributing citizens. Each story inspires hope, and I hope they inspire many of the 27 million other Head Start alumni to share and contribute their own stories to this site, at www.ourheadstart.org, to create a chorus of inspiration. This is a challenging economic moment in our nation, and I think policymakers both in Congress and in states could use a little more inspiration when they’re facing decisions about whether to cut Head Start programs.
Check out Chuck Mills’s two-minute video, featured on the site. If you know other Head Start alumni with fulfilling careers, urge them share their own stories.
More about Mills: Mills grew up against stiff odds. His mother had no high school diploma, no husband, two low-paying jobs and six children. She lost her eldest son, Harrison, first to the streets and ultimately to prison, where he died. An older sister passed away as well.
”The idea of having an opportunity for her two youngest children to have, in essence, some educational early childhood training meant a tremendous amount for her,” Mills said. “My mother, despite her training, has always preached that education is the key to success.”
Mills hop-scotched as a child from St. Louis to Shreveport to Joliet. Unable to afford vacations or special outings, Mills would be driven to O’Hare International Airport, where, lying atop the hood of a car just beyond the runway, he watched planes take off and land while dreaming of one day looking down from the cockpit instead of the other way around. He shared those ambitions in school once, prompting a teacher to cushion his inevitable future disappointment.
“Her response was in the most motherly way, ‘That’s a fantastic endeavor, but if you could make it to being a supervisor in the Westinghouse plant on the West Side of Joliet, you would be doing better than anyone,’” Mills recalls. “I got home, told my mom and said, ‘I’m crushed. I don’t think I can be a pilot.’ And my mom said, ‘You can do whatever you want to do,’ and I know that gave me the motivation.”
That motivation carried him all the way through the United States Naval Academy, where he served tours in the Philippines, Korea and Japan, as well as a stint in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War. It also carried him to Wall Street, where he worked as a bond trader for a major investment firm.
While in the military, Mills flew Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton on the presidential helicopter. Inside “Marine One” is a door that separates the cockpit from the cabin. A nearby placard bears names of the flight crew, so that the President knows who’s flying that day. On Mills’s first flight with Clinton, the President opened the door to the cockpit to greet the pilots and did a double-take upon seeing a minority in the pilot seat. Mills recalled, explaining that at the time, it was still a rare sight. “What a pleasure to see you, Captain Mills!” Clinton exclaimed.
Today, Mills runs two businesses in Northern Virginia, coaches his three children’s myriad sports teams, travels the world on a speaking circuit discussing small business issues, chairs the finance committee of the board of George Mason University, and also is involved with nonprofits—one that help ex-offenders assimilate back into communities, and another to develop affordable housing. And, if that wasn’t already enough, for three years, Mills led Virginia’s equivalent of a Small Business Administration, at the request of Gov. Mark Warner.
Most people only have hazy memories of their preschool years. Mills, however, has vivid memories of the nutritious food served in his Head Start program.
“I looked forward to getting that bagged lunch, the white milk,” he said. “They were better lunches than what certainly some other folks in my neighborhood received.”
Expect to hear more about Mills in the future. Asked whether his ambitions wander into politics, he provides a decidedly political answer: “I’ll do it on my own time and on my own schedule, and when I’m 100 percent sure that I’ve fulfilled my first duty in life: To successfully raise my three children.”