Growing Up in Tahoe

For me, the big event of January was not how a 10-foot snowstorm acted like the stock market — starting out with promises of 10 feet that turned out to be five. Instead, it was the retirement of Warren Mills from North Tahoe High School. As the last remaining teacher who was there when the school opened in the fall of 1974, it’s the end of an era. Everybody who was there when I was a student there is now gone.

I was a junior when NTHS opened and it was pretty exciting to attend a school close to home and escape the long bus ride to Truckee. Mr. Mills was one of a host of teachers that made our new school an interesting place. There was Mr. Van Valkenburg, who always had his pipe either in his mouth or in his hand, ready to aggressively emphasize a point. We had Mr. Dewhurst, a brilliant, diminutive man who taught chemistry and looked and sounded like a mad scientist. Then there was the normally stoic English teacher Mr. Fouts. I remember what a great accomplishment it was when I actually got him to laugh as he read a sample of my writing. I think he was also shaking his head.  There was Ms. Graham, the gorgeous 20-something PE teacher that every boy in the school had a crush on. Oh, Ms. Graham in PE class… Where was I? Oh yeah, there was Mr. Lingle, who somehow made physiology and dissecting pigs fun. He also taught a class called Tahoeology, where we studied the science and culture of Lake Tahoe. It was probably the most useful class I took in high school. I believe I still owe Mr. Lingle an apology for disrupting his class by throwing several fake joints into his classroom as I strolled by. Pencil shavings, it was all done with pencil shavings.

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Now, with Mr. Mills’ retirement, NTHS history is alive only in our memories, tainted though they may be, and in Mr. Mills’ 35 years of memories from his time at the school.

‘When I arrived in Tahoe I was fresh and green from L.A.,’ Mills said. After spending his first year in Truckee, he was transferred to the brand new North Tahoe High School. The school had no classroom doors and very few windows, part of a new ‘modern’ design, which for some reason sounded like a good idea to some school designer in the ’70s. (I think they may have spent a little too much time enjoying the ’60s.) Students and teachers alike didn’t enjoy being trapped in a room without windows, and the lack of doors made it easy for students to disrupt a class. And then there was the outside of the building. Mills said, ‘I remember coming over to look at the new school before it was completed and looking at this gorgeous, natural cedar siding. Then they painted it this ugly, battleship gray.’ To Mills, however, the school’s location made up for its failings: It sits in the middle of a forest in ‘the greatest cross-country running terrain in the world.’

He enjoyed teaching at NTHS but if you want to light up a conversation with Mills, start talking about his days coaching the cross-country running team. ‘I love my kids. I want them to reach for the stars. Once they get out there they realize what they can do,’ Mills said. ‘When I got my kids out running, I only saw one team, my team: North Tahoe.’ A few years ago, when it came time for the Mills family to buy a new Subaru, he had to make the choice between the green one and the red one (unfortunately, there was no ‘Laker Blue’). It was an easy choice. No NTHS athletic coach would purchase a car that was ‘Truckee’ red.

In Mr. Mills’ first season as a cross-country coach he had the privilege of coaching senior Ron Prouty.  I remember Prouty as a quiet, intelligent guy who kept to himself. Mills said, ‘Ron Prouty was my first super-stud runner who won the state championship.’ The kid could run. When it was time for Prouty to compete in the state championships, the rest of the team asked Mr. Mills if they could skip the race. They wanted to watch Prouty cross the finish line in first place.

Although Mills didn’t even know what cross-country skiing was when he arrived in the mountains, he soon discovered that a lot of his runners were also into cross-country skiing. ‘I remembered Prouty getting a brand new pair of skis, klistering the heck out of them, and running on the cross-country ski trails,’ Mills said. ‘He couldn’t really ski. But he could run with skis on.’

While Mr. Mills has retired from teaching and won’t be around the classroom any longer, he won’t be completely out of the picture. He is still set to coach the cross-country running team this fall. ‘That’s my passion. I have a great bunch of kids coming back,’ he said. ‘I have really good memories of North Tahoe. It’s a great place for kids to grow up and go to school.’

A ‘Mad Man Mills’ retirement party will be held June 13 in Kings Beach. Go to ‘Mad Man Mills-Retirement Party’ on Facebook for more information and the location, which has yet to be determined.

~ When Tim Hauserman graduated from North Tahoe High School it was an ugly gray box, but it was still a great place to go to school. He wrote ‘Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children.’ He is sure that his English teacher is shocked that he actually wrote a book. Comment below.

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