Thursday, February 26, 2004

ROUNDHOUSE ROUND-UP: ERNIE & LORENE

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican

Today is the first anniversary of the death of veteran New Mexico newsman Ernie Mills.

It's hard to forget that cold morning. The Legislature was still going on (last year's was a 60-day session), and I was in the press room chatting with some other reporters, preparing for the day ahead. The voice of Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, came over the overhead speakers announcing to the Senate and anyone else in the building listening that Mills, 76, the gravel-voiced old pro of the local news biz, was gone and calling for a moment of silence.

(That was Jennings' most emotional statement on the Senate floor last year. I know Mills would have gotten a kick out of Jennings' most emotional statement on the Senate floor this year -- when he accused Gov. Bill Richardson of "abusive behavior" and "bullying" a group of lobbyists, including Jennings' wife.)

Mills probably was best known for his role in negotiating with insurgent inmates during the 1980 riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico. Mills walking into that burning prison (and, as his family has since pointed out, making the potentially dangerous fashion faux pas of wearing a Crimestoppers cap) puts to shame any of the "war stories" the rest of us press dogs could tell (except maybe my old boss Larry Calloway, who was taken hostage during the 1967 Tierra Amarilla courthouse raid).

It's true that nobody could replace Ernie Mills. However, his work is being carried on by his widow, Lorene Carpenter Mills.

For the past year, Lorene Mills has taken her husband's old job as host of Report From Santa Fe, a political interview show broadcast on public television statewide for nearly three decades. The show is taped each week in a studio right inside the building Ernie Mills dubbed "The Merry Roundhouse."

Lorene Mills also continues writing her late spouse's weekly newsletter, Mills Capitol Observer, available by subscription only.

Meanwhile, she hired longtime KUNM reporter Tom Trowbridge to continue the syndicated radio show Ernie Mills started in the 1960s, Dateline New Mexico.

Lorene Mills said Wednesday that while her husband was in the hospital before his unexpected death, the plan was to have her take over the television show while he was home recuperating. After all, she had been behind the camera on the show for nearly 20 years.

But Ernie Mills never made it home.

Although she has no formal training in journalism -- she has a Ph.D. in comparative literature -- Lorene Mills never had a second thought about continuing the TV show herself.

Her first guest was Richardson -- who had seen Ernie Mills in the hospital less than an hour before he died. Since then, she's had legislators from both parties, Cabinet secretaries and other government officials, and, back during caucus season, several presidential candidates. Last summer, Dennis Kucinich holed up in her studio to meditate before giving a speech at the Capitol.

"I'm not a journalist; I'm just an honest woman," she said. "I continued doing it because I love it. I'm a news junkie. I was perfectly happy sitting until 4 a.m. watching the House of Representatives in session last week.

"I love the politics, I love the news," she said. "I just give thanks for having had such a wise teacher, guru, soul mate and jive-ass husband."

Report From Santa Fe can be seen locally 6:30 a.m. Sunday on KNME, Channel 5, and 1 p.m. Sunday on KCHF, Channel 11. Dateline New Mexico can be heard 8:04 a.m. weekdays on KANW, 89.1 FM.