John B. McMillan
August 31, 1942 - February 6, 2019
John Burchfield McMillan, 76, passed away February 6, 2019, after a long and truly courageous battle against cancer over a three-year span. But John's life was not defined by that struggle. It was a big life indeed, marked by a wonderful marriage to his wife of more than 50 years, the former Angelyn Stokes, by two sisters, Julia and Mary, and brother, Robert, all of whom supported and adored John through his very last day. Tall and burly, John was a physical reflection of that life. He loved the big continent of Africa, to which he and Angie traveled with friends many times, and his home on Blackberry Lane was itself big in its rooms and its fireplaces and its open spaces devoted to artifacts of those African travels. It was a warm and welcoming place, and John particularly enjoyed having fireplaces in the living room and den. John and Angie welcomed visitors of all ages, all backgrounds and yes, all countries. If John thought someone was going to be without a place to go for Thanksgiving and Christmas, he invited them to share the holidays with him and Angie. But John perhaps valued most his oldest friendships, many of them formed during his undergraduate days at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when he was a member of the ATO fraternity and later, in study groups at the law school. A long-time partner at Manning, Fulton & Skinner in Raleigh, John developed a government relations practice, a field at which he was rated "the best" in North Carolina so many times his rivals quit counting the annual rankings. He credited his mentors and friends at the firm with his success — Howard Manning, Charlie Fulton, Bill Skinner, Marshall Happer and Jack Gulley. But John made sure to "give back" to his profession by working with younger lawyers throughout his career, including current partners John Hardin and Will Morgan, whom he reckoned to be among his finest colleagues in his long career. By the time John stepped away after 51 years, the firm had over 40 lawyers. But in fact, he never really stepped away entirely, and was still counseling people, including his partners, until his last days. John maintained an active interest in politics, particularly the Democratic Party. He also helped raise funds for a seemingly endless group of worthy causes: The Nature Conservancy, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the University of North Carolina School of Law. John was also a faithful leader of the Boy Scouts, taking troops on many camping trips, as he believed the Scouts were a character-building institution. John himself was an Eagle Scout. During his career, John received many professional awards, including the University of North Carolina School of Law's Lifetime Achievement Award and a North Carolina State Bar award was named after him. All other honors would literally take too long to name — and John wouldn't approve, anyway. But if there's a cause of which John was most proud, and a success for which he was due immense credit, it was the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. He chaired the board of that organization and raised millions and millions of dollars for it, still working the phones in the last weeks of his life. That wonderful building in downtown Raleigh with the "world globe" being its signature, might well be called the House that McMillan built, though John was never one to seek self-glorification in any way, even in jest. He simply loved the museum, and his reward was in seeing it succeed in becoming known as a "Smithsonian of the South." For if there was a characteristic that always defined John for his closest friends, it was his humility, his quiet manner, and his graciousness.
One of his friends, Governor Roy Cooper, said on learning of John's death, "John McMillan was an extraordinary attorney, public servant, and good friend whose life was defined by so much more than his work. He loved his friends and family, music, the outdoors and North Carolina. He will be greatly missed." John always worked to honor the values and dedication to community as modeled by his parents, Dr. Robert Monroe McMillan and Dorothy Burchfield McMillan. John remembered them always as generous and compassionate, and his father (his grandfather also was a doctor) cared for patients of all backgrounds and races. John had clear memories of going to his father's office and meeting people on house calls with him – it was the kind of personal attention that served as a model in John's professional life.
His parents also valued education, and that's one reason John attended the Hill School, a prep school in Pennsylvania, before he was off to Chapel Hill.
There he set the stage for a long and successful and yes, very happy life indeed. John's last weeks were marked by visits from many friends, including member of a group he called "the Wise Men," a name most of the members would have chuckled about, as they saw themselves blessed to just be able to call John McMillan their good friend. John invited the members, who never numbered more than just a few, to join, and they met for Scotch and cookies at his house on every other Monday. Rivalries over who could build the best fire developed, and John chuckled at all that. The group was diverse and included Martin Brinkley, dean of the UNC law school, developer Carlton Midyette, attorney Wade Smith, John's long-time physician, Dr. Bob Bilbro, the Rev. Art Ross, retired from White Memorial Presbyterian Church, state Rep. Grier Martin, News & Observer cartoonist Dwane Powell and Jim Jenkins, retired N&O columnist and editor.
Family members surviving John are: his wife, Angie; his sisters Julia (Jed Dietz) of Baltimore and Mary (John Jackson) of Toronto and brother Robert of Raleigh. Also close to John and surviving him are Julia's children, Edith Dietz (Emmanuel Opati) of Baltimore, Robert Dietz (Julie) of Chicago, and Elihu Dietz (Lily Rothman) of Brooklyn, NY. John is also survived by a great niece (Clara) and a great nephew (Bernard). John McMillan did not believe himself to be an example of valor in his three-year battle with cancer, but his friends certainly did. They marveled at his courage and his good humor, even on his last stay at REX Hospital, where he joked with nurses and faced his ultimately grim diagnosis — after years of clinical trials at Johns Hopkins and UNC Hospitals — with the usual somber determination. He was fortunate to come home and to enjoy being surrounded with family and friends in his last days.
We do not always know when a great person is among us, but we know when he or she has left us. John McMillan's friends and those who crossed his path during their lives, experiencing his grace and good humor, will carry on, hoping that John will know they are not forgetting him or his causes. For they never will. The McMillan family asks that in lieu of flowers, his friends honor John with contributions to the North Carolina Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, or the University of North Carolina School of Law. A memorial service and celebration of his life will be held Friday, February 15, 2019, at 2:00PM at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh. Friends of John will be providing special music 45 minutes prior to the service. Condolences may be sent to CremationSocietyNC.com
Published by The News and Observer on Feb. 10, 2019.