Donor Gives to Honor Wife and Save Lives

Times Staff Writer

Karl B. McMillen has savored some of life’s sweetest gifts: a long and happy marriage, a Midas touch in business, and the robust health, at age 74, to keep on expanding the firm he built from scratch.

McMillen also has endured some of life’s toughest challenges: the death of his firstborn son from a drug overdose, the loss -- to cancer -- of his wife of 48 years, and his own battle with alcohol abuse.

Now the Manhattan Beach man, who made his fortune in plumbing contracting and supply, has dug deep into his pockets in a carefully planned gesture that ties together the blessings and the pain. McMillen has pledged $5.3 million to Torrance Memorial Medical Center to develop a comprehensive program to combat drug and alcohol addiction.


The Thelma McMillen Center, named in memory of the businessman’s wife, is scheduled to open next August. The outpatient facility, to be housed in a newly purchased building next to the hospital, will be large enough to serve more than 400 patients a year. That will at least double the capacity of the medical center’s chemical dependency program, now limited to adults.

McMillen’s donation, which Torrance Memorial officials said is the largest private gift in the hospital’s 77-year history and one of the largest ever to any community hospital, will enable development of a program for adolescents and will help pay for treatment for uninsured patients. The center will have dedicated rooms for counseling, treatment and meetings, plus a library and exercise space.

“There is so much need for these programs,” McMillen said during a recent interview in his tidy office at the Hawthorne headquarters of Todd Pipe and Supply, the firm he co-founded in 1966 after selling his interest in a previous firm and “retiring.”

He recalled how the family had agonized as their bright, athletic son Mark struggled with his drug addiction before succumbing to an accidental overdose in 1986. He was 31.

Shortly after his son’s death, McMillen wrote to a community weekly newspaper and urged publication of the eulogy a former teacher of Mark’s had read at the funeral.

“We all recognize that drug use in the South Bay is rampant,” McMillen wrote in the Beach Reporter, “and, perhaps, just perhaps, the publication of the eulogy might dissuade some young person from following the inevitable tragic path our boy took.”


Through his donation, McMillen believes he has found a far more effective way to join the war on addiction -- and to honor the memory of his wife, who did volunteer work for the South Bay Free Clinic and other causes for many years.

“Through the Thelma McMillen Center, we can save lives,” he said, blue eyes lighting with enthusiasm.

“I feel fortunate that I am at a point in my life where I am able to give back something.”

Born in Arizona and raised during the Depression, Karl McMillen learned the value of hard work from his father, a former school district administrator who worked as a bookkeeper for a plumbing company after the stock market crashed and he moved the family to California.

After a three-year stint in the Marines, McMillen worked as a plumber to pay his way through USC, graduating in 1954 with a degree in business administration. With Thelma by his side and a favorite professor as mentor and advisor, he built businesses in plumbing contracting and commercial real estate.

Since its founding 36 years ago, McMillen has built Todd Pipe and Supply into one of the largest wholesale plumbing distributorships in the nation, with eight branches and plans for a ninth.

He refers to the firm’s 400 employees as “team players,” calls the customers “partners,” and included such phrases as “honesty, trust and integrity” in the company’s mission statement. He often arrives at the office at 5 a.m. and stays till 10 p.m.

McMillen lives comfortably but not lavishly.

“I could buy a fancy boat or big house up in Palos Verdes, but I don’t need them,” McMillen said. “I’d rather spend the money on something worthwhile.”

The Torrance Memorial donation was not McMillen’s first venture into philanthropy. In 1995, he and his wife gave $1.5 million to endow the Kenneth L. Trefftz Chair in Finance at USC -- a tribute to his former professor and mentor.

McMillen said he was inspired by the late George Graziadio, a shopping center developer and banker who gave generously to Pepperdine University. Graziadio also donated money to Torrance Memorial, and that, McMillen said, helped him decide on a recipient for his own gift.

“I didn’t think we needed to reinvent the wheel; I followed his steps and used his expertise.”

Perhaps, McMillen mused aloud, his gift will inspire others, much as Graziadio’s did him.

“I believe it is important to do what you can to help,” McMillen said, “and I am hoping that by me doing this, maybe someone else will step up too. That would be neat.”