Play on


by Jesma Reynolds

photograph by Lissa Gotwals

“If music be the food of love, play on.” So wrote William Shakespeare to open Twelfth Night, and so says Robert McMillan about living life to the fullest.

The Raleigh trial lawyer turns 90 on Sept. 4. A member of the Wake County Bar for more than 63 years, McMillan still spends up to an hour a day playing the piano, citing the universality of music and the pleasure it brings.

His joie de vivre spills over into all aspects of his life. A 2012 inductee into the Raleigh Hall of Fame, McMillan has a roster of civic contributions: He has served as president of the Raleigh Rotary Club, as a Sunday school teacher and deacon at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, and as a Boy Scoutmaster. The World War II Marine also helped create the Mordecai Historic Park.

An avid walker, McMillan is also well known for his classic suits and hats, as he cuts a striking figure on downtown sidewalks.

“I’ve always dressed the way I think a lawyer ought to dress. I’m trying to help people in the courtroom, and my clients want a lawyer who means business.” Always mindful of a budget, McMillan says he bought his suits early in his career at Womble’s Clothing Store on Fayetteville Street. “I’ve never been one for having high-quality clothes. I just wear decent clothes.”

But he still remembers the elegant brown Rogers Peet suit that Mr. Womble called to tell him about, and let him pay for over time. “I wore that suit every day.” It became such a fixture that the clerk of court would direct anyone looking for McMillan to the front of the courtroom to find the man in the brown suit.
He took to wearing a hat later.

In the winter, McMillan chooses a felt bowler and in the summer a straw Panama, both by Borsalino. This commitment has withstood prevailing trends. “President Kennedy killed demand for hats. He was handsome and had a full head of hair.”

As for McMillan’s neckties, he says he prefers the simplicity of a four-in-hand knot.

His penchant for walking to work every day from his home in Cameron Park – something he did until recently – created problems with his feet, which led him to wear Rockport shoes. Now he says he wouldn’t wear anything else.

McMillian’s sense of style spills over to office aesthetics. He can regularly be seen watering the flower boxes he plants every season outside his office on Nash Square. For spring and summer, he chooses coral and white impatiens. “My wife taught me to always mix white into flowers.” For fall and winter, he replants caladium bulbs that he keeps dormant in his basement. At home, he says he usually mows the grass while wearing a necktie.

This month, when he attends the “surprise birthday party” hosted by his six children, McMillan says he’ll wear his seersucker suit if it’s hot, or a nice-looking sport coat and slacks if it’s not.

And he may even play a tune or two on the piano for his guests.