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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Mills, Walter Burton (Wally) (1939–2016)

by Richard Hopkins

Walter Mills, 2010

Walter Mills, 2010

photo provided by his family

Wally [Walter Burton] Mills, electrical engineer, family man, Christian, and community builder, was a person of drive and enthusiasm.

Wally and his sister Jenny were born into a family of Christian heritage. Their father was a bank manager in Queensland. Wally was born in Brisbane on 26 March 1939. He went to school in Canungra and Beenleigh in the Gold Coast hinterland, and in Murgon in the South Burnett region.  In mid-teens he made a commitment to follow Christ. This commitment remained firm throughout his life from then on. He left Murgon High School as dux in 1957 and went on to study electrical engineering at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, residing at Emmanuel College. His third year studies were disrupted by the sudden death of his father. His mother, his sister and he then moved back to the family home in Brisbane, enabling him to complete the studies for his degree from a home base in 1961 and 62.

In 1959, Walter Mills was appointed as the only Cadet Electrical Engineer with the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority (SMA) in Cooma, New South Wales. He worked for the Scheme then at every university vacation from 1959 to 1962. He later recalled, “I fell in love with the vision of the project.” His senior observed later:

  • the enthusiasm Wally exhibited in his work was enormous
  • he did everything asked of him with enthusiasm.

Career and family
From 1963, the career of Wally was as an electrical design engineer with SMA and its consultancy offshoot, Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC).

Wally met Helen Winter on her familiarising visit to Cooma in December 1967. In early 1968 she moved to Cooma to take up the position of relieving head science teacher at Monaro High School. Later in 1968, Wally and Helen were married. Their four children, Rosalind, Elizabeth, Donald, and Joanna, were born in later years as Wally’s career progressed in both SMA and SMEC.

From 1972 to 1984, Wally served in SMEC as:

  • Senior Electrical Design Engineer for the Shoalhaven Pumped Storage Hydro-electric Scheme in southern NSW, and
  • Senior Electrical Design Engineer and Team Leader for the Wivenhoe Pumped Storage Hydro-electric Scheme on the Brisbane River.

In both projects he was responsible for electrical contract supervision and preparing operation manuals, as well as for design.

From 1982 to 88 Wally served with SMEC as Consultant Electrical Engineer for the Lubuge Hydropower Station in Yunnan Province, China.

From 1989 to 1999 Wally was back in SMA, firstly as High Voltage Electrical Test Engineer and then in introducing trading into the Australian electricity market.

From the end of Wally’s full-time career, he continued with intermittent engagements with SMEC. These took him to Malaysia for part of his period as Principal Electrical Design Engineer in the Hulu Terengganu Hydro Project; and to Sri Lanka as Electrical Design Engineer in the Moragahakanda Reservoir Project. He also completed a number of other engagements in Australia for SMEC and others until 2015.

Wally Mills was an innovative, skilful engineer with an analytical mind. He was a great organiser: he planned every detail; he was reliable and capable.

Community involvement
Wally embraced community involvement and service in Cooma from the early 1960s: he did this through Christian association and secular club membership with fellow citizens. He was a generous, determined achiever.

From the early 1960s, Wally helped to initiate and grow the Snowy Christian Fellowship which invited returning missionaries and others to visit Cooma usually on Friday nights, at intervals of about six weeks.

For many years, Wally supplied the energy and time to organise scripture teaching in public schools. He encouraged Cooma churchgoers to take on scripture teaching, arranged for their training, and arranged programmes with school principals.

The Cooma Ministers Association handled inter-church activities including carol nights and Anzac services. Wally served as secretary of the association in a diligent and thorough way. Authorised by the association, he conducted monthly combined Christian services in two aged care homes.

In his later years, Wally organised a monthly Men’s Breakfast on a Saturday. He arranged for a local person or visitor to speak a challenge of encouragement to the 20 to 30 men who met in Cooma on these occasions.

Working in collaboration in 1968, Wally Mills helped to form the Cooma Branch of the Antique and Classic Car Club. He served as the foundation secretary from 1969. In later life he was a member of Cooma Litter Pickers for about 15 years.

Wally Mills was an achiever for the public on a national scale.  He was instrumental in:

  • the National Heritage listing of the Snowy Mountains Scheme in 2016, and 
  • the National Engineering Heritage landmarking of the Tunnel Rock Bolting Development Site at Lambie Gorge, Cooma, in 2009.

Tunnel Rock Bolting had been established by SMA, and was then used around the world without proper acknowledgement. Wally Mills researched the development of the design, and convinced the Institution of Engineers, Australia, to recognise the origin. He published his own booklet, “The Snowy Men behind Tunnel Rock Bolting”  in 2009.   

Wally Mills accepted a setback on one matter, while continuing in others. With a soundly reasoned letter to the Cooma-Monaro Express  in 2004, he appealed for the State-transport passenger station in Cooma to be located back to the enclosed waiting room with toilets, where it had been shortly earlier. Accepting a limited result on this matter, he continued with sustained enthusiasm on other causes of public interest.

With considerable powers of conciliation, he was instrumental in redeveloping good relations between the public and Snowy Hydro (successor to SMA)  after a difference of opinion appeared in 2006 over the proposed sale of Snowy Hydro.

He was an inspiration to a fellow enthusiast in collecting old machinery. Their efforts succeeded in acquiring exhibits for the Museum of the Snowy Mountains Scheme in Adaminaby, fifty kilometres from Cooma.

Before renewable energy became more popular, Wally Mills investigated the potential for developing small pumped storage schemes in the Cooma-Monaro Shire. He took this to a number of politicians in Canberra. The push into renewables had not gathered momentum then; he was a pioneer in this.

Wally Mills was a driving force in organising reunions of workers who built the Snowy Mountains Scheme. On this he said in 2016, “It was such an important part of Australia’s history and future, and allowed migrants to find respect in their new country, working shoulder to shoulder with Australians. When we all get together it’s like a big family catching up, reminiscing on the parts we played in building that amazing piece of infrastructure.”

Wally Mills had been active as usual in Cooma until the end of his life at the age of 77 years on 16 November 2016. He is survived by his wife and their four children and seven grandchildren.

Original publication

Citation details

Richard Hopkins, 'Mills, Walter Burton (Wally) (1939–2016)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/mills-walter-burton-wally-27528/text34929, accessed 19 October 2021.

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