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Former Red Jacket and Faculty: Local ‘legend,’ offshore safety pioneer remembered

, lguidry@gannett.com, The Advertiser, Sept. 6, 2016


The Lafayette community lost a "legend" Wednesday when 96-year-old Margaret McMillan died after a "most accomplished" life.

These are just some of the words used to describe McMillan as comments poured in on social media and the funeral home’s website this week.

"She has touched so many people’s lives," her niece, Robin McMillan of Lafayette, said. "… She’s an icon, I tell you what. My phone’s been blowing up since Wednesday, when she died."

Many of those commenting remember her fondly as the woman who taught them to swim. During her roughly 75-year career as a swim teacher, she taught generations of children and adults to be safe and have fun in the water.

The Gramercy native began swimming at age 2 and started teaching at 11. She founded the McMillan Swim School in 1962 and was the Women’s Physical Education Department coordinator at what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Margaret McMillan (not pictured) taught swimming in

Margaret McMillan (not pictured) taught swimming in the Lafayette area for decades. This photo shows a group of kids having popsicles after a swim lesson in her backyard pool in the late 1980s.  (Photo: Courtesy of the McMillan family)

McMillan also is known as a pioneer in more than one male-dominated field, beginning with physical education and later entering the world of offshore safety.

"She didn’t want all the attention," Robin McMillan said. "She did it to save lives."

‘She lived beyond a full life’

McMillan earned a bachelor’s degree in health, physical education and psychology at Southwestern Louisiana Institute of Liberal and Technical Learning (now UL) in 1940 and then a master’s degree from the University of Texas.

McMillan was a "Red Cross girl" stationed in Miami during World War II, after which she returned to Lafayette to teach. She was a professor and coordinator of women’s physical education and Assistant Dean of Women at UL. She stuck with the Red Cross as an instructor trainer, taught lifeguarding and swimming at the university and would attend National Aquatic Schools throughout the United States. She was a nationally rated official in basketball, volleyball and tennis, according to her obituary.

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She was a founding member and director of the SLI Red Jackets and helped coordinate halftime shows for football games. She was adviser from 1941 to 1959 and later coordinator of the university’s women’s physical education department from 1972-76.

The original crew of the Marine Survival Training Center

The original crew of the Marine Survival Training Center are, from left, Terry Crownover, Lou Whalen, Margaret McMillan Haas McMillan, John McMillan and Wikoff McMillan.  (Photo: Courtesy of the McMillan family)

After retiring from UL in 1976, she entered the world of offshore safety and founded, McMillan Offshore Survival Technology (MOST) and was the guiding force for UL’s Marine Survival Training Center. She became internationally recognized as an expert in the field of sea survival technology.

She was awarded the U.S. Coast Guard’s Distinguished Service Award, The Distinguished Leadership and Service Award, the Gulf Coast Safety and Training Groups highest award, and the U.S. Marine Safety Award.

In 2005, she was the first woman to be inducted into the Offshore Energy Center Hall of Fame in Houston because of her pioneering efforts in the field of offshore safety. Her legacy lives on in not just her accomplishments but in the thousands of offshore workers who have been trained because of her work.

In 2005, Margaret McMillan became the first woman to

In 2005, Margaret McMillan became the first woman to be inducted into the Offshore Energy Center Hall of Fame in Houston because of her pioneering efforts in the field of offshore safety. McMillan died Wednesday at age 96.  (Photo: Courtesy of the McMillan family)

She told The Daily Advertiser in 2006, "I don’t ever remember being afraid of water in my life. It was fun and games."

‘Aunt Marg’

Her love for water and intense focus on safety impacted her nieces and nephews, whom she helped raise. It’s clear in their own work now, like her nephew Wikoff McMillan, who is a health, safety and environmental coordinator with Aries Marine Corporation.

"As you can see, my aunt has led me in the direction of safety," he said in an email Friday. "Love her dearly."

And he isn’t the only one. His brothers and sister are right there with him.

"Our paths in life were influenced by witnessing her dedication to having a safer work environment for anyone working or playing over water," Wikoff said. "Three of us are very involved with offshore safety."

To Wikoff, Robin and their brothers, she was "Aunt Marg."

"Aunt Marg was a figure in our lives," Robin said. "She changed all of our lives. … We were very lucky to have her."

Robin McMillan hugs her

Robin McMillan hugs her "Aunt Marg," Margaret McMillan at a University of Louisiana at Lafayette homecoming event five years ago. Margaret McMillan died Wednesday at age 96.  (Photo: Courtesy of the McMillan family)

McMillan never married or had kids, and she played a big role in the life of Robin and her brothers after their father — McMillan’s brother — died when they were very young.

Some of them lived with her when they attended school at then-University of Southwestern Louisiana. They traveled the world with her, which Robin called an education in itself. Some spent years in the pool with her, helping with swim lessons.

The nieces and nephews were shaped by McMillan’s love for the water and for safety, as well as the authority in her walk and talk, Robin said. She even called her aunt a "hard" woman, which seemed to serve her well as she broke gender barriers and saved lives through swim lessons and offshore safety efforts.

"She was not always very nice," Robin added, referring to comments people made about her throwing them in the pool, but being thankful she did now. As Robin puts it,"it was always for your betterment."

"My Aunt Marg was a woman who could rip out your heart on telling you the truth, but she would replace it with her own," Robin wrote on Facebook, adding that her aunt had lived "beyond a full life."

The funeral service will be Sept. 7 at a 10 a.m. Mass of Christian Burial in La Chapelle de Martin & Castille in Lafayette. The Rev. Bryce Sibley, pastor of Our Lady of Wisdom Catholic Church, will be the Celebrant of the funeral Mass and will conduct the funeral services.

Visitation will be at Martin & Castille’s downtown beginning Sept. 6 from 4 to 8 p.m. and will continue on Sept. 7 from 8 a.m. until time of services. A Rosary will be recited Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. Burial will follow the funeral at Bellevue Memorial Park Cemetery in Opelousas.

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Athletic Network Footnote by Ed Dugas, former student, colleague, and friend.
My son Paul developed a friendship with Margaret which began when he took swimming lessons with her as a pre-schooler.
He became a close confidant, her attorney, and close life-long friends with Hayes, her nephew.

Please click here for her Athletic Network profile.  It contains many of the publications about her extensive off-shore survival leadership initiatives. her aquatics accomplishments, and her gift to the university.

Click here for one of her 1938 cheerleader photos.

Click here for the Red Jackets at their 2004 Homecoming Reunion.

Margaret was a leader in every aspect of her being. She loved her family dearly, held her friends close, and worked tirelessly on the areas for which she had a passion – mainly, saving lives in the oil industry as off-shore became the center of the work-place.
Her effectiveness as an educator in the aquatics area is monumental and her influence will be felt for quite some time. I was blessed and honored to have our paths cross during my life.

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