‘He loved the work.’ Kent Milton, longest-serving member of CHP office, dies at 91

Kent Milton was the longest-serving member of the California Highway Patrol public information office. His career spanned 45 years, and he is remembered for being among the first to author public campaigns against drunk driving and for seat belt safety. He died Oct. 5 at 91.
Kent Milton was the longest-serving member of the California Highway Patrol public information office. His career spanned 45 years, and he is remembered for being among the first to author public campaigns against drunk driving and for seat belt safety. He died Oct. 5 at 91.

Kent Rohe Milton, the longest-serving member of the California Highway Patrol’s public information office, died Oct. 5. He was 91 years old.

Milton began his 45-year career at the state highway patrol’s headquarters in 1960, and is well-known for creating public campaigns educating people on the importance of seat belt safety and the dangers of drunk driving when both issues were just emerging on the public consciousness in the latter part of the 20th century.

Milton was born in Chicago in 1927 and grew up in various places across the country as the son of a military officer. After a stint in the U.S. Navy as a meteorologist, Milton settled in California where he attended the University of Southern California to study journalism.

While there, he married his long-time sweetheart, Barbara. Milton and his wife were married for 65 years and had six children together.

He then worked as a reporter for several Los Angeles-area newspapers.

In 1960, he made the switch to civil service, accepting a position with CHP to support his growing family, said Paul Milton, his oldest son. Milton and his wife made the move to the Sacramento area, adopting it as their permanent home for more than 50 years.

During his career at CHP, Milton worked under 10 commissioners, writing speeches and press releases, authoring public information campaigns, and working with reporters, his son said.

“He loved the work,” said Paul Milton. “(Writing) was his avocation and his vocation.”

“He was just the best speech writer I ever met,” said Peggy Springer-Owen, a friend and former co-worker.

Milton was often found in his office at CHP headquarters, cigarette between his lips, and using only two fingers to furiously type away on his manual typewriter, Springer-Owens said.

He was known for his “dry wit.” He had piles of paper stacked in his office, but “if you asked for something, he could reach out and find it,” said Spike Helmick, who served as CHP commissioner 1995 to 2004.

Helmick said he remembers Milton as a “wonderful” man and friend.

“He was 100 percent ethical and honest,” Helmick said. “He taught us that the press is our friend, and we may disagree with them but when they call, you answer.”

Milton supported new laws and policies that allowed public access to law enforcement records pertaining to arrests, even when the majority of law enforcement was very opposed to it, Helmick said.

“Kent did not back down from pretty powerful people when he believed in something,” he said.

Former Commissioner Joseph Farrow worked with Milton for more than 30 years and said he considered him a “mentor” in his early years as an officer.

“When I got to meet him, I just thought ‘what a neat guy,’” Farrow said. “And I really looked up to him.”

After his retirement from CHP, Milton did a stint at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, where his ideas for driver safety campaigns received national attention, Helmick said.

But Milton eventually returned to the highway patrol and continued to work as an adviser to commissioners and helped in the highway patrol’s public affairs office. In that role, Milton helped the highway patrol through difficult times, Farrow said.

“I went through a time where I lost five officers in 41 days and so we buried all five of those officers,” Farrow said. “And Kent and I got together and we did the eulogies for five officers. We had to write three of them in three days, and he helped me frame the message and really honor these officers in a way that was very personal.

“And they all had their own stories, and Kent’s job was to craft the words to tell those stories so they didn’t just become an officer killed in the line of duty but it was (about) who they were.”

“I remember Kent and I working into the late hours of the night looking for the right word for the right moment,” he said. “He never left my side.”

Milton continued his service in the highway patrol into his eighties.

In 2015, Milton was honored by the highway patrol for his long career of service, and was given a commissioner’s commendation.

“Throughout 45 years of dedication to the California Highway Patrol, you were instrumental in promoting the Department, its traffic safety programs, and its mission of saving lives through the creative marketing of the benefits of passenger restraint and the dangers of speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol,” the commendation said. “ . . . the quality of your work endures, and for this we extend our hearty appreciation and admiration.”

“He was very well thought of,” said Paul Milton. “It’s a big loss for the highway patrol as well as his family.”

Milton is survived by his sister, Elisabeth Patterson, as well as his six children and their spouses, Paul and Pat, Margaret and George, Catherine and Ron, Matthew and Patty, Mark and Laurie, and Andrew and Sandy.

Milton is also survived by 15 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, Oct. 27 at 2 p.m. at Milton’s church, Shepherd of the Sierra Presbyterian Church, 5400 Barton Road., Loomis, CA 95650.

Molly Sullivan covers crime, breaking news and police accountability for The Bee. She grew up in Northern California and is an alumna of Chico State.