When veteran journalist Ernie Mills—who was chosen a Santa Fe Living Treasure just weeks before a sudden attack of pneumonia caused his death this year at the age of 76—was memorialized, the ceremony was held in the Rotunda of New Mexico’s State Capitol, and five former state governors, as well as the current one, came to honor him. Also present were dozens of other politicians, many of the state’s most influential men and women, and hundreds of other people crowding the main floor and three balconies.
Yet this remarkable tiibute to Ernie Mills was not because he was a big shot. Rather, it was became he was the champion—and the voice—of all the little people. Over nearly four decades of radio and television broadcasts here, Mills, who earned the title “New Mexico’s Journalist,” helped shape the course of state politics and was respected (and occasionally feared) by even the most powerful movers and shakers. His real strength, however, came not from them but from all the “little birdies,” “wall leaners” and “gatos flacos” (skinny cats) who trusted him enough to tell him what was really going on—which he promptly passed along to his many thousands of listeners and viewers.
An Easterner who grew up in Brooklyn and was, for a while, a professional ice skater at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, Mills chose journalism as a career. In 1956 he stopped impulsively at the newspaper in Gallup and was hired as managing editor. From then on he remained in New Mexico, and became its best-known, reporter.
When the Vietnam War was becoming increasingly unpopular back home, Mills paid his own way over there, not to dutifully support the U.S. government but to report on the “little people” from New Mexico caught up in the war. When the most murderous prison riot in American history erupted at the state penitentiary in Santa Fe in 1980, enraged convicts refused to negotiate with politicians or other officials, whom they did not trust, but asked for Mills, whom they did. At risk of his life he went inside, and won the release of prison guards who were being held hostage. Then he went back to work.
After recovering from a potentially fatal case of melanoma, Mills became a spokesman for the New Mexico Cancer Society. Always down-to-earth despite his fame, Mills kept grinding out his radio and television programs until the end, always ready to speak out for the “skinny cats.” With his death, New Mexico’s most prominent voice was stifled.