Joe Mills… 1908-1990.
In 1980, after bout 6 months of trying this sport on my own, I had the great fortune to meet the legendary New England teacher of weightlifting, Joe Mills. I had lifted in one of my first meets, a small clean and jerk competition that summer in Montville, CT. Having won my weight class and Best Lifter of the meet, I was pretty proud, walking around the fairgrounds with my trophies. That is, until my first meeting with Joe. I will never forget, he walked right up to me and said “you keep lifting like THAT Valentino and you’ll kill yourself! Come down to the Club and i’ll teach you how to lift weights”. Truer words were never spoken – he was never known for mincing words, as I was to learn. “You want a good stroking or false compliments, go see your grandmother. If you want to learn how to lift weights, come to see me.” Thus began my journey, driving 3 hours each way from Stamford. CT., to this Old School Gym in Central Falls Rhode Island whenever I could for 10 years. I was to learn what the real sport or weightlifting was all about, from this highly experienced 71 year old (or “22 Celsius” as he would say) knowledgeable teacher of weightlifting.
Born in 1908, New England coach and lifter Joe Mills of Central Falls, Rhode Island, began lifting in 1931. He was walking in Central Falls and passed a tenement house where a man named Stanley Ossowski was lifting weights. Joe was intrigued and began lifting with Stan and a few others in a garage on New Haven Ave. In 1935 they started a club at the Pawtucket Y, where workouts included lifting, tumbling, hand balancing, gymnastics, bent pressing, and other one – arm lifts. In 1937 his total of 652 pounds in the then three Olympic Lifts (Clean and Press, Snatch, Clean and Jerk) was just 2.5 pounds under the winning total at the World Championships in Paris. His best lifts in the 132.5 pound featherweight class were clean and press 200, 201 snatch, clean and jerk 265, total 665. He was one of the first lifters in the world to clean and jerk double bodyweight, 265 pounds weighing just 130! In 1942 Joe won the U.S. National Championship in the featherweight class.
In July of 1942 Joe was inducted into the Army. From the end of 1944 until the end of the war he was involved in battles and campaigns in the Rhineland, Ardennes, Central Europe, and Czechoslovakia. His decorations and awards were: the Good Conduct Medal, American Theater Campaign Ribbon, Victory Medal, and the European African Middle Eastern Theater Campaign Ribbon. On February 19, 1945 near Sinz Germany, Sergeant Joe Mills ”for heroic achievement in connection with military operations” was awarded the Bronze Star. In a squad of 12 that fought for 18 days straight, Joe knocked out a German machine gun nest with a grenade, and was one of only three of the twelve that survived. I remember Joe showing me the medal and when I asked what it was for he said “damn Germans threw a grenade in our fox hole, so I threw it back!” That was Joe.
Joe coached World and National Champions from New England until his passing in 1990, including Bob Bednarski, Mark Cameron, Jerry Ferrelli, Al Stark, Frank Clark, Jim Decosta, and Gerry Willis, among others. His wisdom regarding the athletic requirements of these lifts, and his attitude on lifting as a way of life were priceless. In 1990, the following was written by Connecticut lifter Ed Klonoski of Torrington, Ct. Thanks to Ed for so eloquently putting into words how we all felt about Joe:
By now I’m sure most of you know that Joe Mills has left us. And those of us who knew and valued Joe are left missing him, struggling for words to express our loss. Here are a few such words.
Weightlifting requires three attributes: strength, athleticism and attitude. For those of us lucky enough to train with him, Joe taught weightlifting’s special athletic demands with an insight that the rest of the world is only beginning to share. “Look up; jump down” is a refrain that we have all heard for decades. We smarted under his sarcastic, “very powerful, very powerful.” But we went back to our gyms determined to earn his praise, a grudging, “ok.” Now when I watch the great world champions I see them looking up and jumping down; turning lifting into the graceful and explosive movement Mills always claimed it was.
But Joe’s contribution encompassed more than training, more than technique, more than his own many championships, even more than his love of good lifting. You see, Joe was the walking, taking embodiment of weightlifting. His credo, “two deep breaths and I can do anything,” is the essence of a lifter’s philosophy.
Watching Joe struggle through his last couple of years I understood even more deeply the value of that attitude. To the end Joe’s back was straight, his head tall, and his eyes bright. Whatever crossed his path was met with two deep breaths.
So here is a life well lived. And spread all over this country are men walking a little straighter, a little taller, meeting life head on with an attitude they learned from a normal sized Englishman of Central Falls, Rhode Island. Thanks Joe