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Top 2021 Stories - No. 3: Walt Straka, Stewart C. Mills Jr. die

Brainerd native sons and veterans Walt Straka, a Bataan Death March survivor, and Stewart C. Mills Jr., co-founder and owner of Mills Fleet Farm and the Mills Automotive Group, left us in 2021.

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Walt Straka (left) and Stewart B. Mills Jr., both Brainerd institutions, died in 2021.
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It’s perhaps only fitting — albeit sad for many in the Brainerd lakes area who came to know and respect him — that the 101-year-old veteran Walt Straka died on Independence Day.

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Walt Straka smiles at his home in 2019 while celebrating his 100th birthday in Brainerd. The Bataan Death March survivor died Sunday, July 4, 2021, in Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Another icon also left us in 2021: Stewart C. Mills Jr., the co-founder and owner of Mills Fleet Farm and the Mills Automotive Group, died about two months later on Sept. 24 at the age of 93.

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Stewart C. Mills Jr. and daughter Marisa Mills participate in an interview at the Brainerd Dispatch office in 2016, after the elder Mills was selected as the first recipient of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber Business Legacy Award. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

Straka was born in 1919, lived through the Great Depression, survived years as a prisoner of war, returned home to marry his sweetheart and raised seven children during his lifetime.

READ STRAKA'S LIFE STORY> A century of heroism: The life of Brainerd's Walt Straka, Bataan Death March survivor

Stewart C. Mills Jr. and his twin brother Henry were instrumental in building Mills Fleet Farm from two employees to more than 7,000. Fleet Farm now has 47 stores located across the Midwest.

Straka was the last Minnesota survivor of the Bataan Death March, where Japanese soldiers forced American prisoners of war on a brutal and often fatal 60-mile trek through the Philippines.

EDITORIAL> Our Opinion: Stewart C. Mills Jr. leaves a lasting legacy

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Stewart C. Mills Jr., right, gives bunny ears to friend Bruce Buxton. Contributed

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READ MILLS' LIFE STORY> A big, full life: Humble and magnetic, Mills Jr. was a hometown giant

Both of the men who died this year were native sons of Brainerd. And both were remembered fondly and honored at the time of their passing with accolades and anecdotes.

Mills was a local and regional business leader in addition to being a philanthropist and charitable benefactor to a number of causes in the Brainerd lakes area.

Straka lied about his birthdate when he was 17 and signed up with the U.S. Army National Guard to serve his country and its citizens, and later fought valiantly in World War II.

EDITORIAL> Our Opinion: A salute to Walt Straka

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Walt Straka as a member of the 34th Tank Company based in Brainerd. Later, the 34th were merged with units from California and Missouri to form the 194th Tank Battalion. Company A of the 194th received orders to reinforce troops in the Philippines in September of 1941, three months before the United States entered WWII. It was there, on the Bataan peninsula, Straka and his comrades faced horrific atrocities that would come to be known as the Bataan Death March. Submitted photo
Contributed

Mills was honored by the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation in 2017 as a supporter of the Brainerd Jaycees, the Crow Wing County Fair and city parks and ballfields, to name a few.

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Straka was active in numerous local nonprofits like the Elks Club and American Legion. And he was a proud veteran and regularly attended events involving the 34th Tank Company.

Mills was also a veteran and honored those in military service like Straka whenever the businessman could, including paying the tabs for veterans at local establishments.

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Stewart C. Mills Jr., right, and former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant pose together on a hunting trip. Contributed

Of the 64 Brainerd men from the tank company that went with the 194th to the Philippines, including Straka, three were killed in action and 29 died as POWs. Thirty-two survived captivity.

Mills was part of the 194th Tank Battalion and the Minnesota National Guard before he joined the Army, where he served until 1959 — or 18 years after Straka’s arrival in the Philippines.

Straka and his comrades in the 194th were among 75,000 American and Filipino troops who walked more than 60 miles to Japanese prison camps known as the Bataan Death March.

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Walt Straka and Minnesota Commissioner of Veterans Affairs Larry Herke talk after he was awarded the Minnesota World War II Memorial Medallion Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, at Edgewood Vista Senior Living. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

Mills handed out American flags for years along the route for Brainerd’s Fourth of July parade commemorating the Declaration of Independence of the United States.

Decades later after Straka’s harrowing brush with death at the hands of the Japanese during World War II, he heard he was to be honored with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Both Mills and Straka left an indelible mark in the Brainerd lakes area with their heroism, charity and love for the community, and neither will soon be forgotten despite their passing in 2021.

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Stewart C. Mills Jr. waves from a boat. Boating was one of Mills' favorite pastimes, from his youth throughout his life. Contributed

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

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I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. đź“°
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