Susan Jane Mills, an educational and cultural leader in Three Rivers for more than 40 years, died quietly at her home on the banks of the Kaweah River on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. She was 73.
A community celebration of Sue’s life and accomplishments will be held Saturday, Dec. 5, from 2:30 to 5 p.m., in the Community Presbyterian Church’s Harrison Hall in Three Rivers. The High Sierra Jazz Band will play in her honor and memory.
Sue had suffered from cancer and was under the care of Kaweah Delta District Hospital’s hospice service.
Sue was a lifetime teacher and a past trustee and president of the Three Rivers Union School board of trustees. She managed the High Sierra Jazz Band, the local Dixieland band, during the years the group attained international recognition.
Sue directed the Three Rivers Jazzaffair, helping to build it into a major Dixieland festival with bands performing on several stages before hundreds of fans.
She was married to Three Rivers inventor George Mills and was the mother of three sons, two who continue to be important parts of the Three Rivers community.
Sue was born Susan Jane Charters on April 8, 1942, in Milwaukee, Wisc. Her father, David, was an industrial manager and a veteran of the U.S. Army in World War II. Her mother was a housewife and an early mentor to college-educated women in the post-war world.
In 1949, the Charters family moved west to California, joining the throngs of Midwesterners who turned the state into a powerhouse. The Charters family lived in Riverside, Pomona, and Montclair.
Sue, along with her sister, Ann, attended the University of California at Riverside during its early years as a UC campus. Sue met her future husband, George Mills, there and graduated with a degree in English in 1964. She taught in the Riverside school system.
Sue and George were married on June 27, 1964, in Riverside. In 1968, the couple, tiring of life in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, moved to a plum farm in Woodlake. In 1974, they moved to the Kaweah River shorefront home where they raised their sons and grandsons.
George Mills purchased a building next to the Kaweah River’s North Fork Bridge and established Electrosort, Inc., where he created and built fruit-sorting machines for Sunkist Growers and other San Joaquin Valley packing operations.
Sue taught school in Exeter, Lindsay, and Three Rivers. She was a member of the TRUS board from 1979 until 1992, serving as president for seven years.
Sue helped to organize the annual Jazzaffair in Three Rivers and was festival director from 1983 to 1989 and again from 1994 to 2000.
She managed the High Sierra Jazz Band from 1983 to 2000. During those years, the band gained an international following, playing on cruise ships in the Caribbean and in traditional Dixieland venues in Europe and Australia. Sue traveled widely with the band, often accompanied by George and her sons, nieces, and nephews.
At the same time, she obtained her master’s degree and became an adjunct instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia.
Sue is remembered by students at all levels, from elementary school to college courses, as a kind but rigorous instructor and mentor who introduced many of them to the rules of grammar for the first time.
Sue was well known for a broad smile and a sharp sense of humor. With several friends, she organized a free-form athletic event called the Weird Olympics involving rafting on the Kaweah River and other unorthodox contests. Scores of Three Rivers residents participated, and many residents in the community still proudly display plaques they won in their youth and early adulthood.
And Sue and George were both regulars in a Three Rivers bridge circle that has met continuously for the last 25 years.
Sue is survived by her husband of 50 years, George, and sons David and Dennis of Three Rivers and Gary, who lives with his wife, Roselen, in Visalia.
She is also survived by her sister, Ann Maxwell, and husband Evan. Ann is a well-known novelist whose work and career Sue delighted in promoting at every opportunity.
In addition, Sue is survived by four grandsons, Dylan, Aidan, Steven, and Andrew, and by her brother-in-law, John Mills, and his wife, Suzie.
Donations to Sue’s memory can be made to the Sierra Traditional Jazz Club, P.O. Box 712, Three Rivers, CA 93271. The club supports Three Rivers Union School and provides scholarships to students at Woodlake High School.
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IN REMEMBRANCE OF SUE MILLS: ‘THE BACKBONE OF THE BAND, OUR ANGEL’
by Charlie Castro
Sue was a very precious person to every member of High Sierra Jazz Band. She knew how to conduct our business and lived every day and night for our success.
It was because of her organizing ability that we got there on time and were ready to play. And she made sure we got paid, too!
Sue arranged every air flight for members of the group, all of whom maintained regular jobs in Tulare County as well as an ambitious international touring schedule that included regular three-week tours of Europe and Australia and week-long performance schedules aboard Caribbean cruise ships.
Sue never thought about herself. The band always came first. And High Sierra Jazz Band exploded in popularity and respect with her management.
We will always remember Sue’s work and will miss her deeply.
Charlie Castro has been the drummer for the High Sierra Jazz Band since its founding as the Jazzberry Jam Band in 1973. He said that Sue Mills, who managed the band from 1983 until 2000, was a key figure in building the Three Rivers Dixieland group into an international attraction.