hite County native Wilbur D. Mills … was the topic of the October White County Historical Society meeting. Judge Bill Mills told of how the Mills family came from Mississippi and settled in the Higginson area. Wilbur Mills’ father, A.P. Mills, was a man who started his business career making railroad ties, attended business school, became a teacher and then opened a general store in Kensett. A.P. Mills was principal and teacher at the school in Kensett and managed to save $500 to buy a store in Kensett.
In 1909, Wilbur Mills was born, followed by Roger Mills in 1912 and Emogene Mills in 1915.
According to Bill Mills, his uncle was a typical kid who played ball and went hunting. One of his ball-playing contemporaries was Bill Dickey who was later a Hall of Fame member of the New York Yankees. After completing the eighth grade at Kensett, Wilbur Mills then finished high school in Searcy. While in school, he worked first at the Mills’ store, then at a bank. “He got into adding and subtracting. He was good with figures,” Bill Mills said. “He learned the banking business.”
Then Wilbur Mills attended Hendrix College before heading to law school at Harvard University.
According to Bill Mills, going to Harvard was part of his uncle’s plan to become a congressman. Mills said that his uncle met a congressman who inspired him to follow in those footsteps. After completing school at Harvard, “He practiced law a couple of years, then decided to get into politics,” Bill Mills said.
It was during that time that he met and married Polly Billingsley, the postmistress in Kensett. “He was known for remembering people and things. He had Aunt Polly who knew how to remember names from working in the post office,” Bill Mills said.
Mills decided to run for county judge, an office he won and held for two terms. He was 24 years old at the time. During the campaign for judge, Wilbur Mills promised the voters that he would not draw a salary until the county was out of debt. According to Bill Mills, later that year his uncle accepted his first salary. While county judge, Mills was concerned about people who could not afford medical care. He made a deal with the hospital to treat those people at the county’s expense. “He was concerned. He loved people,” Bill Mills said.
1939, Mills headed to Washington to be one of six Arkansas representatives. According to Bill Mills, one of the older congressmen mistook him for a page and sent him on an errand.
While in Congress, Wilbur Mills became a protégé of Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. With Rayburn’s help, Wilbur Mills became a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. In 1957, he became the chairman of the committee. He remained chairman until 1975.
During his tenure in Washington, Wilbur Mills gained a reputation for knowing the tax code. “He could recite provisions out of the code,” Bill Mills said, noting that even presidents sought his uncle’s counsel regarding the tax code. Wilbur Mills served during the terms of seven presidents, from Roosevelt to Ford. “He worked best with Kennedy,” Bill Mills said. One of the highlights of Mills’ career took place in 1965 when the Medicare legislation that he drafted was passed. “It was a little different from what we have now, but it served the same purpose,” Bill Mills said. Wilbur Mills also had some battles with President Lyndon Johnson. One of their battles was over Johnson’s spending for “Great Society” programs. According to Bill Mills, Johnson wanted to spend more money, but Wilbur Mills wanted to keep inflation down by not spending the money unless Johnson had the money. According to Bill Mills, his uncle was called to the White House where Johnson had assembled the senior Democrats in the House of Representatives. He asked each if they supported his programs and each replied in the affirmative. Johnson then commented to Mills about this and Mills left the office. The result was that surtax was added to income taxes and government spending was cut by $6 million. “It was the last time there was a balanced budget until Clinton took office,” Bill Mills said.
Wilbur Mills ran an unsuccessful campaign for president in 1972. His campaign changed two things in the Arkansas political system: Changed the primary date from August to May and allowed Mills to run for Congress and president at the same time.