Dennis Mills is ‘the guy next door.’ Literally and figuratively. My husband Charles and I met Dennis when he retired after a 40-year career as a Park Ranger for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission when he moved into the condo that adjoins ours.
A short time later, I lamented on Facebook that our car needed some expensive repairs. Out-of-the-blue, Dennis commented, “I can fix your car.” And, so he did – for only the price of the parts. Wow! What a neighbor and new-found friend – not just on Facebook – but in a real-life crisis.
I soon learned that Dennis is also an Eagle Scout with a plethora of skills.
The recent snowstorms presented a serious problem for transporting my husband to his dialysis treatments, which are critical to keeping him alive. With up to 11 inches of snow forecast, I feared venturing forth even to try to reach the DaVita Dialysis Center.
Again, I posted about it on Facebook, and almost instantaneously, Dennis commented he would transport Charles. Dennis is undaunted by snow after his many years as a Ranger operating chainsaws and snow removal equipment in the State Parks. And clearly, it is simply his nature to be of service and lend a hand.
Park Rangers, Police Officers and others in authority interact with the public in potentially high-stress situations. De-escalation was recognized as a critical element of law enforcement strategy and training more than 38 years ago. Verbal Judo teaches empathy, dignity, and respect, leading to resolution and a good outcome for both sides. Dennis encountered a variety of situations as a Park Ranger. “Most disturbances were with alcohol,” he says. “I’d much rather deal with people high on pot. Drunk people are loud and obnoxious.”
Integrity and other personality traits that comprise the foundation of stable character are highly valued in a Park Ranger’s role. “Rangers have a statewide commission, but the powers are restricted to areas under our jurisdiction,” Dennis says. “For instance, boating and other enforcement action.” Dispute resolution skills are critically important.
Succinct report writing and a litany of other skills are required in the job description for Park Ranger.
“Traditionally, Rangers come from a military background,” Dennis says. “And most were married men. Wives were often expected to serve as receptionists and perform clerical duties in support of the Ranger Station.” Today, there are significantly more female Rangers than when Dennis was hired.
His parents, George and Grace Mills created a lifetime love of the outdoors for their children Dennis, Susan and Linda with camping and scouting adventures. They were the quintessential nuclear family.
A devoted homemaker, Grace also worked for the University of Puget Sound. Dennis accompanied her on a business trip to Canandaigua, New York, where the university sent her for training on a new system. “She decided that if we were in New York, she wanted to see New York City,” recalls Dennis. They spent an additional week sightseeing including Central Park, the Empire State Building and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
George Mills managed Safeway supermarkets and was revered as “Mr. Mills, Scoutmaster of Troop 224.” He served in Scouts until age 80 and passed away in 2014.
Dennis fondly recalls visiting Fox Island with his parents and sisters while camping in a platform tent. “My grandparents had beach property over there,” he adds. “Mom was a co-leader when Linda was in Girl Scouts. Mom went back to work part-time when Susan was in kindergarten.”
Grace Mills was at Girl Scout Camp huddled around the radio with other girls when the end of World War II was announced. Dennis recalls when he was a child, “She was a Den Leader for Cub Scouts. I finished Cub Scouts and then went into Webelos. That was the steppingstone into Boy Scouts.”
At 13, Dennis joined Explorer Search & Rescue where he led search teams, created maps and worked closely with law enforcement agencies.
During this time, Dennis was also mowing lawns. He would hoist the hefty mower into the back of the family’s sedan. Grace would drive. Although he has had lifelong allergies and undergone immunotherapy most of his life, he buckled down and went to work even in his early teens.
While still 17, Dennis was awarded the worldwide recognition and honor of becoming an Eagle Scout, a milestone of accomplishment without equal. “Eagle Scout is not just an award; it is a state of being.”
Dennis was a member of the 1974 graduating class of Wilson High School in Tacoma. That was the launching pad for him to move on to college and pursue his career with Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, which today employs some 500 full-time and 350 part-time workers statewide, including Rangers, Engineers, Planners, Construction, Clerical, etc.
Today, almost all Washington State Parks Rangers are armed. “That started in 1996,” Dennis says. “I was commissioned in 1980.”
Fort Worden with two miles of saltwater beaches, towering bluffs and breathtaking views of the San Juan Islands, was Dennis’s introduction to employment with Washington State Parks as a Park Aide not long after graduation from Skagit Valley Community College, which today is known simply as Skagit Valley College. Dennis earned an Associate of Technical Arts degree as a Park Ranger Tech.
Dennis’s next Park Ranger assignment was Millersylvania State Park for four years as Park Ranger I.”
“Next after that was Ocean City for 1-1/2 years as Park Ranger 2, then I was promoted within the Park, to Park Ranger 3, and I was in that position for 11-1/2 years,” Dennis continues.
From there, Dennis was sent to serve at Central Ferry State Park. “Central Ferry is halfway between Dusty and Dodge,” he chuckles, “I always tell people Dodge is a little wide spot in the road, and Dusty is a little town you pass on your way to WSU. Dodge has a DOT facility, and Dusty has a Cenex® store and used to have a really good café.” Dennis was there for six years. “That was the best move I ever made. But then that park was closed due to budget cuts.”
Dennis shared a story about working at Central Ferry as a Ranger when a park guest came in to register for a campsite. The lady recognized him. He didn’t recognize her. But she reminded him that she had been the shopkeeper at the Fred Meyer Nutrition Center at 19th & Stevens in Tacoma many years before. His innate thoughtfulness as a teenager had made a lasting impression on her. Each week when the store’s freight deliveries would arrive, she would have to close the store early to unpack and break down the shipping cartons for recycling.
Faithfully, each week on that day – without her ever having asked Dennis to do this – he would show-up like clockwork and pitch-in to help her crush the boxes and make short work of that monumental task.
After Central Ferry, Dennis transferred to Twenty-Five Mile Creek State Park on Lake Chelan.
The State went through yet another round of budget cuts. That time, Dennis returned to Ocean City State Park, where he had served previously. Still, he was only there for ten weeks before being assigned to Kopachuck State Park, which would be the final destination on his 40-year career path with Washington State Parks.
Dennis retired in 2018.
At the top of his “Bucket List” upon retirement, Dennis planned a cross-country road-trip July 12 – September 22. He headed out from Tacoma to British Columbia.
His transcontinental journey took him through ten Canadian provinces along the Trans-Canada Highway before crossing back into the United States. The trip racked-up 13,921 miles. Altogether, $1,471 was the cost for gas. Interestingly, Dennis found the highest gas price in the U.S. was in East Wenatchee. While traveling, he stayed in hotels in Canada and the U.S. in condos with friends.
More international travel was planned for 2020 with an itinerary to the United Kingdom, but it was postponed due to the pandemic. However, at the height of the fire season on the West Coast, Dennis set-off on a wildfire smoke-dodging road-trip zig-zagging to Idaho, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, followed by a refreshing stop at Crater Lake, Oregon, which he had not visited for many years.
I put one other question to Dennis: In your 40 years as a Park Ranger across the state, did you ever personally have any Sasquatch sightings?
“No. No Sasquatch sightings,” he replied. I told him I know some people who are seriously, actively searching for Bigfoot. His only additional comment on that subject was, “I know a couple of Rangers that are that way, too.” Hopefully, no need for Verbal Judo when or if they have a close encounter with one…