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Tuesday, Jan 15 2013 06:28 PM

Former county administrator left visible legacy

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    L Dale Mills

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

He oversaw Kern County's public works and roads departments during an era of extraordinary growth and change, and left behind a permanent and visible legacy in the form of county government buildings, libraries and fire stations.

L. Dale Mills died Saturday at his home in Bakersfield after suffering for months from a number of health problems. He was 84.

"He had asked to come home," Mills' youngest daughter, Janet Mills, said Tuesday. "He was done fighting.

"He waited until my mom went to bed Saturday night and just passed away."

Born in Visalia on June 2, 1928, Dale Mills grew up in nearby Farmersville. He studied engineering at UC Berkeley, where he was voted Ugly Man on Campus, a distinction considered an honor at the time, his daughter said.

After graduation in 1952, Mills served as an officer in the Navy in a variety of locations, including at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the city where he met Alice Atherton, the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his life.

"They married in 1954," Janet said. "He and my mom had a lifelong love affair."

The couple settled in San Mateo in the late 1950s. Mills worked for local county government and the couple adopted three children, Jeff, John and Jane. Later Janet would come along, a pleasant surprise.

Mills' big opportunity came in 1964, when he had his choice of county department directorships in San Luis Obispo and Kern counties. He chose Kern because of its potential for explosive growth, Janet Mills said.

Dale Mills would ultimately head both the county's Department of Public Works and the Roads Department at a time when Bakersfield was growing to become a significant population center in the valley.

"Dale Mills presided over the greatest construction phase this county has ever had," said former 3rd District Supervisor Pauline Larwood, referring to construction of the Kern County Administrative Center on Truxtun Avenue -- sometimes derided as the Taj Mahal for its grandiosity -- the Public Services Building on M Street, several outlying government centers and library branches.

Construction of these projects had been long delayed by a lawsuit over the way the county taxed oil company resources. The county won the years-long lawsuit, freeing up millions of construction dollars that were leveraged through a program called "certificates of participation."

"Dale did excellent work. He followed through on what the Board asked," Larwood said. "He ran the Roads Department well. He was a good guy."

But not everything went perfectly.

According to Californian archives, state politics and local waffling resulted in the infamous dead end to Highway 58 at Real Road, an abrupt freeway terminus that still confuses motorists and frustrates planners.

The problem may have begun when state funding for new freeways was de-emphasize in the late 1970s as more emphasis was placed on mass transit.

Mills was there.

In an interview in 2001, Mills and his longtime friend and former city of Bakersfield Public Works Director Dale Hawley talked about why Highway 58 was never extended westward, despite their best intensions.

The state tried to plan an extension, but it never made it to a public hearing, said Hawley, who died in 2005.

Without a plan and without funding, pressure from developers resulted in more homes and businesses being built, further blocking Highway 58's westward path, the pair said.

"Public pressure kept 58 dead-ended in Real Road," Mills told The Californian.

Mary K. Shell, a former county supervisor who later became Bakersfield mayor, remembered Mills as the guy who took the lead in finding a desperately needed county landfill when the old one along the Panorama bluffs was forced to close.

Ultimately Mills found a parcel well east of Bakersfield near Bena Road, a site Shell predicted "will last a long, long time."

"He was an engineer. You couldn't fool him," she said. "But he was an engineer with a sense of humor -- and that's unusual."

Former Supervisor Trice Harvey, who served on the board from 1976 into the mid-1980s, said he remained friends with Mills after they left county government. Despite some moments of friction in supervisors chambers when they found themselves at odds over one issue or another, the men kept in touch.

"I've had run-ins with friends before," Harvey said. "Dale and I had a couple of those moments back in those days."

Following Mills' retirement from the county in 1991, he entered into an engineering consulting partnership with Hawley and longtime friend Ken Secor.

"After he retired, he worked with the Kern Transportation Foundation where he put a good deal of volunteer effort into finding solutions to transportation problems in this area," said current county Roads Director Craig Pope.

In retirement, he also found more time for his grandchildren, now numbering 13, and his great-grandchildren, soon expected to number 14.

As strict and firm as he could be, those who knew him well realized the little ones brought out Mills' inner child, a side not everyone saw, his daughter said.

Fishing, hunting and cars remained passions throughout his life.

"For his 80th birthday, we got him a cherry-red 1968 Volkswagen bug," Janet remembered. "It was his baby."

Funeral services have been scheduled for 9 a.m. Jan. 25 at St. Francis Church , to be followed by a reception. Burial with military honors will be held on Jan. 29 at Bakersfield National Cemetery. The time has not been determined.

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