The Brainerd lakes area has lost a native son, business icon and charitable soul in Stewart C. Mills Jr.

Mills, co-founder and owner of Mills Fleet Farm and the Mills Automotive Group, passed away Friday, Sept. 24, at the age of 93.

With his twin brother Henry, Mills was a large part of building Mills Fleet Farm from two employees to more than 7,000 and growing it to stretch across four states.

But Mills was so much more than just a local and regional business leader, he also was a philanthropist and charitable benefactor to a number of causes in the Brainerd lakes area.

In honoring Mills with its Award in Philanthropy in 2017, the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation noted Mills was a strong supporter of the Brainerd Jaycees, the Crow Wing County Fair and city parks and ball fields, just to name a few endeavours.

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A veteran himself, Mills also was extremely patriotic, honoring those in military service whenever he could, including paying the tabs for veterans at local establishments. For years, the Mills family handing out American flags was ubiquitous along the parade route for Brainerd’s Fourth of July parade.

While Mills’ accomplishments are many, he never sought the limelight and wasn’t about pomp and circumstance. That’s the way he preferred it — working quietly behind the scenes to better the community he called home all his life. It’s a philosophy he learned from his father and grandmother.

“Many of his contributions to our community have been anonymous. Because of his wishes to remain anonymous and contribute to his community in a sometimes very personal way, we may never know the full extent of how much Stewart C. Mills Jr. has made an impact on our community,” Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation wrote in honoring Mills.

In 2016, Mills was the recipient of the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce’s inaugural Legacy Award. In a Brainerd Dispatch story about the honor, longtime friend and business associate Bruce Buxton summed up Mills succinctly — both in his business acumen and in his charitable generosity.

"If you saw him on the street, you'd never know who he was, you'd never know the position he had. You'd never know what he built. And he built it — there is no question about it in my mind that it was his vision and his passion and his effort that really grew that thing. He drove himself as hard or harder than he ever drove anybody else. But he didn't consider it work. It was just what you do," Buxton said,

But his true loves, Buxton noted, were the Brainerd and Nisswa communities.

"He always believed in helping and giving back to this community," Buxton said.

While such honorifics may not have been his preference, Mills’ legacy as a businessman and benefactor are nonetheless cemented in the lakes area forever. And for that, the community will be forever grateful.