The Arlington Heights Fire Department hired its first full-time firefighters in 1957 after operating as a volunteer force since the 1800s. Badge No. 1 that year was given to David Mills, who stayed with the department for 32 years and rose to be deputy chief until his retirement in 1989.
Mills, 84, died Monday after a short illness. He is being remembered for his contributions as a "founding father" of the department.
"He was probably one of the finest people I ever met," said Charles Kramer, who joined the fire department in 1967 and worked with Mills for more than 20 years. "I never heard him say a bad thing about anybody. He was a leader, he was a friend, he was a teacher, he was a mentor."
Kramer later served as a deputy chief and is now an assistant emergency management coordinator with the village.
He said Mills was a calming factor in what could often be a high-stress job. The two men fought side by side in the 1985 fire that destroyed Arlington Park, which Kramer called a major event in both their careers.
Even more than 20 years after retiring, Mills would still come into the station to talk to firefighters, share memories and donate memorabilia from his years with the department, Kramer said.
"Everyone looked up to him," Kramer said. "He's going to be really, really missed."
Mills was born in Oak Park and grew up in Chicago. He served in the Coast Guard before joining the Arlington Heights Fire Department in 1957. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1964, captain in 1969 and deputy chief in 1975, Kramer said.
"He would rather be inside the building fighting the fire, on the hose line with everyone else, than outside directing crews," Kramer said.
Mills also was a member of the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association, Illinois Professional Firefighters Association and the International Association of Fire Chiefs and served as president of the Northeastern Illinois Fire Chiefs Association.
After retiring he volunteered as a reading tutor with the Northwest Suburban High School District 214, as well as in the genealogy department at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library.
Mills is survived by his wife, Joyce, three children, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He also had three stepchildren, nine step-grandchildren and seven great-stepgrandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife of 53 years, Genevieve.
Visitation will take place Thursday from 3 to 8 p.m. at Meadows Funeral Home, 3615 Kirchoff Road, Rolling Meadows, where services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Friday. Interment will be at Windridge Cemetery in Cary. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Midwest Hospice, 2050 Claire Court, Glenview, IL 60025.