Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance leader Don McMillan dies at 74
St. Paul — When Dr. Don McMillan took the reins in 2007 as president of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, the man whose position he inherited didn’t think McMillan would amount to much.
McMillan already had made a name for himself with Safari Club International, but John Schroers believed his thought process was a little outside of traditional MOHA thinking.
“I was proved very wrong, very quickly,” Schroers said. “He grew MOHA. We were struggling and look at us now. It’s all because of Don.”
McMillan was the active MOHA president until last week, when he suffered a massive heart attack. He died Thursday, April 19 at the age of 74.
Immediately after his death, social media sites like Facebook lit up with tributes to McMillan, who lived with his wife of 44 years, Patricia, in Mendota Heights. Both the state House and Senate observed moments of silence in tribute to McMillan, as did attendees at a Capitol rally on Monday.
“There’s no way to appreciate fully the contributions of Don McMillan and his influence on hunting- and angling-related issues over the past 40-plus years,” said Garry Leaf, the executive director of Sportsmen for Change.
A dentist by trade, McMillan also had taught at the University of Minnesota.
He served as Minnesota chapter president of Safari Club International from 1980 to 1982, and was national president of the organization from 1984 to 1986. McMillan played key roles in developing the group’s government affairs and political action committees.
“All of us that have the passion for hunting and fishing and the outdoors, we owe Don a debt of gratitude,” said former state Sen. Bob Lessard. “He would go far beyond the call of duty to work on sportsmen’s issues. It was a passion for him. People like him are rare. He didn’t have to do it – he just did it.”
McMillan was active in the push for the state’s Right to Hunt and Fish constitutional amendment, which voters approved in 1998. And 10 years later, when voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which increased the state sales tax and directed a portion of the proceeds to habitat, McMillan played a key role as MOHA president.
Lawmakers in state capitols throughout the country knew McMillan, as did those in the nation’s capitol.
“Don was passionate about hunting and fishing, and hunters and anglers, and saw the need for a presence at the Capitol,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “That’s a rare commodity, to have that personal passion for hunting and angling, and also to have that standing with influential people. He could make them understand why they had to do the right thing. It was just a rare combination of gifts and abilities that Don had.”
McMillan worked both sides of the political aisle, too.
In 2004, he chaired Sportsmen for Bush in Minnesota. In the years that followed, he worked closely with state DFLers as they took up the dedicated funding mantle.
In a Facebook post written after McMillan died, Satveer Chaudhary, a former DFL state senator, called McMillan “a friend, adopted uncle, adviser, fishing/hunting buddy to me and many people.”
Wrote Mark LaBarbera, who moved to Minnesota in 1980 and met McMillan shortly thereafter: “Don supported those who supported hunting, conservation and the shooting sports, no matter what side of the political aisle they favored.”
In recent years, McMillan had been especially focused on MOHA’s annual legislative banquet, which draws hundreds of conservation advocates and lawmakers from both parties.
He had plenty of interests outside the political arena, too.
“The cause could be humanitarian, like the time Don and the late Dan Treb, also an SCI Minnesota chapter president, worked with the local Make-a-Wish program to send 17-year-old cancer patient Erik Ness and his father, Brock, on an Alaskan bear hunt,” LaBarbera wrote. “It was Erik’s dream. When anti-hunting groups fought it, the Make-a-Wish national office changed its policy and stopped sending patients on their dream hunts.
Don, Dan, and the rest of us found ways to deliver those dreams. Don is a man of action, and he proved that there’s always a way to get things done when the cause is just.”
McMillan, of course, was an avid hunter and fisherman. He hunted and fished around the world and took regular trips with friends.
He, LaBarbera, and others, for example, already were planning a trip in September to Lake Kabetogama.
“Don was the lynchpin – he always organized all the food and coordinated everything,” LaBarbera said. “A bunch of us guys were just talking about how we need to carry on in his honor. He’d want us to embrace life and spend time with friends.”
Friends also recalled his culinary skills.
“The guy could cook,” Lessard said. “Even when you didn’t get any fish, he would cook anyway.”
It’s unclear who will fill McMillan’s role with MOHA or the other groups with which he was involved, but whoever it is has big shoes to fill, Lessard said.
“Nobody is irreplaceable, but he is the closest thing to that for the hunting and fishing community,” he said.
Said Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation: “Don was a good man and a good leader. I have a lot of respect for what he did, and I miss him. (His passing) reflects the need to get more young people involved in this activity.”
Services for McMillan were held Tuesday in St. Paul. He’s survived by his wife, three children, and five grandchildren.