It’s not hard to find a parent eager to brag about their children and their accomplishments. It’s equally easy to find parents who describe their children as kind, friendly or someone who gets along with everyone. We, of course, are no different.
There was always something a little different about our Daniel. It was this interesting combination of courage, intelligence, authenticity and empathy. I call it Courageous Empathy.
Daniel understood that every human was flawed in some way. Maybe it was a physical flaw, maybe it was an emotional or character flaw, maybe it was a mental health challenge; no one was perfect.
On one hand, that meant he idolized no one. He engaged you as an aspirant human. It was sometimes quite sobering. On the other hand, it meant he celebrated everyone. While some portend flaws should be “looked past” or even ignored, Daniel thought these flaws should be acknowledged, cared for, nurtured, fought for and even celebrated. Yes, celebrated. In his mind, the good and the bad, our strengths and our weaknesses is where our true authentic selves thrived, and that was worth fighting for.
Even from a young age, when his sisters got in trouble, he would negotiate with us (the parents) on their behalf. While acknowledging their mistake, he would argue whether their punishments fit the crime. He wanted affirmation that they were being treated fairly.
In high school, he debated with his teachers about why the U.S. grading system was unfair and sets students up to fail. He questioned why only the top 30% of students got an acceptable grade when it’s the 70% that succeed in Europe. He laid out his argument with detailed research comparing our system to superior education systems around the world.
Maybe we should call him “Daniel the Defender.” He hated bullies of all kind. If the topic was his cousin Justin, whom we adopted into our family, or his classmate at Montverde, both of whom were diagnosed on the spectrum, Daniel defended them against all aggressors.
Simultaneously, he encouraged them to see their diagnosis as an asset rather than a hurdle. He pushed them to treat their “uniqueness” as their special superpower. Then he challenged everyone else to acknowledge the same.
Practice What He Preached
He didn’t like sports because someone had to lose. That, along with inspiration from his sisters, brought him to musical theatre. No one loses in theatre (maybe with the exception of the rare villain character). Theatre was special. It was an environment where everyone had the opportunity to pursue excellence based on their merit, tenacity and work ethic. Theatre is also an environment that is consumed with empathy. Actors must embrace empathy in order to mirror a character’s thoughts and feelings and bring those alive on stage. Audiences have empathy thrust upon them as the key to its involvement in the story and how they process the emotional plot and understand a character.
Daniel became a member of the Montverde Theatre Conservatory, the only high school program of its kind in Central Florida. This is where he worked to develop his skills as an artist. He clearly saw this an opportunity to refine himself as a better human being and perfect himself as an artist while injecting empathy in a world that so badly needed it. He worked and worked and worked. He tirelessly applied himself to studying the greats. He took deepened interest in music and sound. He would literally ask a million questions, wanting to understand nuance, depth and anything else he could absorb – even to the point of annoyance.
His theatre director would say, “Daniel, it will come. Don’t try so hard.” But he kept asking the questions. That is what made him a great artist – this pursuit of perfection. Perfection in his craft and a genuine path to help others truly discover the humanity in character, in story and in people.
And he loved it! He loved when he succeeded. But, as crazy as it sounds, he loved when he failed too (beautiful flaws). His ability to get back up, keep trying and keep asking, even when his director told him to not worry so much, he did anyway. Maybe it wasn’t worry; it was passion in the purest form. It was Daniel wanting so badly to be the best HE could be. That tenacity led him to win numerous awards and accolades. But as parents, we saw more. We saw a very young man discover himself and his place in the world.
It is our hope that Daniel’s memory is a blessing to all who knew him and all whose life he touched. It is our hope that we all learn to have courageous empathy and are inspired to stand up for others while celebrating the beauty of their, and our own, flawed humanity. It is our hope that we all learn through his life how to embrace character, story, performance and fullness of the theatrical experience. It is our hope that his legacy will be one that touches the lives of hundreds and thousands of other students – those aspirant thespians who see the stage as life and who want to pursue a career in the arts as their life’s passion.
Our family has established a scholarship for the Florida Thespian Society. We have also established a scholarship to ensure money doesn’t prevent talented young students from attending and thriving in the award-winning MVA Theatre Conservatory.
Just as critical for us is the formal launching of the W. Daniel Mills Apprentice Program, yet another pioneering first for Central Florida. In partnership with the Garden Theatre, this program provides a yearlong opportunity for students to study and hone their craft within real theatre life. Whether they have performing, stage management, director, or design and production interests, students will have the opportunity to attend workshops, develop skills, and work alongside actual theatre professionals.
Imagine, as a young, developing artist, the opportunity to perform in a real professional performance with professional actors who view, receive, appreciate and treat you as a true, aspiring artist. We aim to provide a strong foundation that will lead to long, sustainable careers for these apprentices.
Daniel’s devotion, love, loyalty and enthusiasm were for the arts. Moreover, it was celebrating the unique beauty in the human experience…flaws and all. These students and apprentices are real people with real lives full of incredible talent, great achievements and, yes, human flaws and imperfections that make them beautifully and authentically them. Their stories are inspiring, motivational, hopeful and insightful. They are uniquely beautiful, like Daniel. We want to share these stories with you through Daniel’s Corner, a monthly column that will be a place to highlight them, to bring their journeys to life, and to celebrate their excellence and royalty. We want to share their courageous and empathetic humanity.
We hope you enjoy meeting these incredible young people and become as confident as we are that our future is bright with these young, aspirant professionals as our leaders of tomorrow.