by Leonard Shapiro

At 6-foot-11 and a deadly accurate shooter, Tom McMillen once was the most highly-recruited high school basketball player in America. He became an All-American at the University of Maryland, had a long and prosperous pro basketball career and also was a Rhodes Scholar, a Congressman and a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness—as a high school senior.

And yet,  what really puts a smile on his face has everything to do with being particularly proud of his pet white peacocks.

The birds live and thrive on the Marshall property McMillen and his physician wife, Judy Niemyer, have occupied for most of the last decade. They have another residence in Maryland, but spend a good bit of time at their Virginia home a few miles from a town that also has a significant interest for him. More on that later.

About six years ago, the McMillens made their first peacock purchase, acquiring a few white birds and several of the more colorful variety.

“We had a blue one,” McMillen said, “but either a predator got it or it ran away. At that point, we decided we were just going to have white ones and we also decided we wanted to breed them. If you interbreed, it does get a little crazy. They roam the property and when we go out of town, they’re in cages.” 

They have 11 white peacocks, as well as 13 chickens and 15 guinea hens.

“People come over just to look at them and they’ve also asked us for some of them,” McMillen said. “In the spring, which is their mating season, the males do make some noise. June is a big month. The males lose all their feathers, and over the fall and winter they grow them all back.”

Some have names.

“When one of them came out of the egg, it had some personality right away,” McMillen said. “We called it Clinton. We’ve got one named Churchill. When we had the blue ones, we called one Disraeli because he seemed so wise. Then there’s Wild Ass, because he’ll just run right up to you. No, we don’t have a Lefty yet, but we probably will.”

That would be a reference to Lefty Driesell, McMillen’s colorful, foot-stomping head coach at Maryland in the early 1970s who remains a good friend. And now, more than five decades since he left College Park, McMillen is still heavily involved incollege athletics, recently named as chief executive officer and president of the Division 1-A Athletic Directors Association. Its members come from 129 major colleges that represent programs producing $9 billion in revenues.

There are countless issues to be dealt with, foremost among them making certain college athletes are properly educated, and provided with the benefits they need to succeed, including comprehensive insurance as well as ongoing tuition so they can earn their degrees even after their athletic eligibility runs out.

 “We want these kids well taken care of,” McMillen said. “I am not in favor of paying players, giving them a salary. I believe it opens a Pandora’s Box. For one, all the money and benefits would be taxable. Now it’s a tax-free benefit. I also think it would lead to a lot of inequity in college sports.”

And on the local front, McMillen is keeping his eye focused on Marshall, as well. Several years ago, he purchased and renovated two buildings on its main street, a retail and apartment property that includes an art gallery and a Palates studio and also the building that now houses the increasingly popular Whole Ox specialty food and restaurant enterprise. He’s obtained eight acres not far from Interstate 66 and is looking into the possibility of building a small hotel.

McMillen also is concerned about the future of Marshall in light of current plans to build 300 new homes there.

“I think the challenge is to make these changes while at the same time keeping the small town feeling,” he said. “When we did the Whole Ox and our other building, it was to make a statement. You need a mix—places like the Old Salem and the Marshall Diner and then the other things. The reason people like Marshall is that it’s still small town. 

Still, McMillen remains bullish on Marshall. He and his wife love spending as much time as possible in the country, and of course, they’re totally enamored with all those peacocks.

“We have a lot of fun with them,” McMillen said. “They’re just beautiful birds.”