WATERVILLE — No matter how important his job or mission, George Mitchell never lets his hometown stray far from his thoughts.
After all, it is here that his three siblings and much of his extended family live, and here that his earliest memories were made.
“Like most people, I’m a product of my upbringing – my parents, the schools I attended, the community I lived in – so I think my growing up in Waterville has had a large and important role in my life,” he said.
Indeed, Waterville is the place where a young man who one day would be asked to step in as chairman of the troubled Walt Disney Co. got his first taste of the free enterprise system, cleaning at the local Boys Club.
It’s where Mitchell, who later in life would be called upon to investigate steroid abuse in Major League Baseball, learned to love the game – and the Red Sox.
It’s the place where a boy who grew up to be one of the world’s leading diplomats was first recognized as someone who could bring people together.
Even in his youth, George J. Mitchell Jr. was a negotiator of sorts, resolving arguments that occasionally broke out among his friends.
“He always had a way to get you to agree with him,” recalls his old friend Tony Joseph. “He would settle things … and I think he’s still doing it. We gave him a lot of experience.”
Joseph, now 78, remembers Mitchell in high school, working as sports editor, attending Boys State and serving in the student senate.
“You could see he was a leader,” Joseph said. “He helped if we had any problems, helped make rules and regulations.”
Joseph could not have imagined at the time to what extent Mitchell would become valued and respected around the world as a mediator and peacemaker, negotiating peace in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s and now working to bring peace to the Middle East as President Obama’s special envoy to the region.
Mitchell, 76, will return home this week to attend a special tribute sponsored by the Boys & Girls Club and YMCA at the Alfond Youth Center in Waterville. He will be honored for his work as a U.S. senator, judge, international diplomat and loyal supporter of the youth center. Mitchell was a member of the Boys Club in his youth and was later inducted into its Hall of Fame.
Gov. John Baldacci will be master of ceremonies for the sold-out event on Thursday evening. The expected 420 guests will include Mitchell’s family, U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, area legislators, George J. Mitchell scholars and Olympic gold medalist Seth Wescott, according to Ken Walsh, the Alfond Center’s chief executive officer.
A special video will be shown, featuring former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.
OPTIMISTIC ABOUT PEACE
On a recent break from Middle East negotiations, Mitchell spoke by phone from his summer home in Seal Harbor on Mount Desert Island, reflecting on his work, family and early life in Waterville.
The one-time Senate majority leader, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize after negotiating Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement in 1998, believes there will be peace in the Middle East, although he can’t say when.
“I’ve always shied away from predictions,” he said, “because human ability to predict future events is very limited and there are so many factors, so many actors, so many differences in the Middle East.”
But he is optimistic that peace will come, he says, because it is in the best interest of all the people in the region.
Former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, a Maine native and longtime friend who served with Mitchell in the Senate, calls him an extraordinarily talented man who is asked to do such jobs because of his intellectual capacity, grasp of issues and patience.
“When you talk about intelligence and integrity and commitment, you think of George Mitchell,” said Cohen, a Republican.
As leader of the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Mitchell was extraordinarily skillful and patient, according to Cohen, who believes that job prepared Mitchell for his later work in Northern Ireland and the Middle East.
“He’s an extraordinary public servant and a servant of the globe,” Cohen said. “His name is known, virtually, by leaders throughout the world.”
EDUCATION ALWAYS IMPORTANT
If you ask him where he learned negotiation skills, Mitchell talks about his time in the U.S. Senate – and the value his family placed on education.
“I think it’s like most talents and skills; they develop over time, with experiences one faces,” he said. “I think my parents had an enormous influence on my life, as do most parents. I’ll forever be indebted to them, primarily because they lacked education and were totally committed to the education of their children. Because they lacked it, they understood the value of education and, as a result, all five of their children went on to college and some got advanced degrees.”
Mitchell is a graduate of Waterville High School, earned a bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College in 1954 and a law degree from Georgetown University Law School in 1960.
After retiring from the Senate in 1994, Mitchell joined the Washington, D.C., law firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand, which merged with Piper Rudnick in 2003; in 2005, Piper joined the British firm, DLA, and it became DLA Piper. Mitchell served as chairman.
He became a member of the board of Walt Disney Co. in 1995 and in 2004 was asked to take over as chairman when board members clashed with management over the direction of the company. He remained chairman until 2007.
Mitchell’s efforts in Northern Ireland began in 1995 when President Clinton appointed him special envoy to that country, which had long been divided by violent conflict over religious and political differences. Mitchell negotiated a peace agreement signed on Good Friday, 1998, and approved by public referendum.
In 2006, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig asked Mitchell to investigate the widespread use of performance enhancing drugs by ballplayers. Mitchell’s subsequent report was instrumental in baseball’s ongoing efforts to curb the use of steroids.
Mitchell was born in Waterville on Aug. 20, 1933, and grew up in a Lebanese and French community at Head of Falls, on the banks of the Kennebec River off Front Street.
His father, George Sr., was of Irish descent. Orphaned as a young child and raised by a Lebanese family, he later worked as a janitor in Waterville. George’s mother, Mary (Saad) Mitchell, a Lebanese immigrant, was a weaver in the woolen mill.
“My mother could not read or write English and worked nights at the textile mill; my father left school after the fourth grade,” Mitchell said.
The couple had five children, including George, the second youngest; Paul, John, Robert and Barbara, the youngest. Robert died of cancer in 1996; the other siblings still live in Waterville, said Mitchell, now a resident of New York City.
Mitchell and his wife, Heather, and children – Andrew, 12, and Claire, 9 – live in Seal Harbor from the time the kids get out of school in June until Labor Day.
Mitchell and his first wife, Sally, with whom he has a daughter, Andrea, divorced in 1987. In 1994, he married sports agent Heather MacLachlan.
As a child, Mitchell spent a lot of time at the Waterville Boys Club, which in those days was on Temple Street, near his home, and the St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church, where he was an altar boy.
Eventually, the Boys Club moved to a building off Main Street and later accepted girls and was renamed the Waterville Area Boys & Girls Club.
In 1999, the club moved with the YMCA into the new Alfond Youth Center on North Street.
“It was a way of life that, after school most days, I and other boys would go there and play basketball and other sports and sometimes just hang around,” Mitchell said. “And that was pretty much a daily event in my life for a long time, and then I got to spend even more time there in junior high and high school.
“(The Boys Club) did have a huge effect on me,” he continued. “It really was a very important part of my life and I’ve always been very grateful and I’ve always supported the Boys Club in Waterville, Portland and nationally.”
It was at the Boys Club that Mitchell learned about business – from his brother Robert, who was a year older.
It’s a story Mitchell has told before, and he seems to delight in retelling it.
“My brother, Robbie, was an entrepreneur. He was into a lot of business activities as early as his high school days. Somehow, he acquired the concession, as he put it, to provide janitorial services at the Boys Club. That was after 9 p.m. He swept the floors, emptied wastebaskets, cleaned the toilets, washed the floors and bathrooms and locker room.”
Robert approached George and said he’d split the job with him; George said OK and went to work, he recalled.
“We did it for a week. He was in high school and dating Janet Fraser, who later became his wife. He went into the director’s office, got on the phone and talked to Janet for an hour-and-a-half while I did all the work. That set the pattern and that’s sort of what happened every night. He paid me $2.50 a week. I later learned he was getting paid $15 a week and I called him on it and he said, ‘That’s a split. I didn’t say 50-50. I’m management and you’re labor.’
From that day on, I figured I was going to learn how I could get to be a manager in life.”
‘YOU HAVE THE ABILITY’
In 1938, the Mitchell family moved across the railroad tracks, from Head of Falls to 94 Front St., to live in a house that still stands.
“I was 12; George was not even 5,” said George’s oldest sibling, Paul.
Paul Mitchell, president and owner of GHM Insurance Agency in Waterville and a 22-year member of the Waterville Planning Board, recalled that George was very academically minded as a child.
“He always was a good student. All of us in the family recognized that George was going to be an outstanding student. My father really pushed everyone. He just didn’t let you forget: ‘You have the ability. I know you have the ability – all of you – and you should use it. Education is really what’s going to move you along.’”
In the 1990s, George Mitchell founded the Mitchell Institute, which awards a scholarship to a high school senior from every public high school in the state. As a result, 1,600 scholarships in excess of $8 million have been provided.
In 1998, the Maine Community College System and University of Maine created an exchange program with Ireland called the George J. Mitchell Peace Scholarship. The program allows students to spend a semester or academic year at Cork Institute of Technology or University College Cork.
John and Paul Mitchell were outstanding athletes in school; George was less so, but Paul says George can “beat the pants off” his brothers in tennis.
The brothers get together when Mitchell visits Waterville; they share a sense of humor and like to poke fun at each other.
When they were young, Paul said, he and John didn’t always like little George hanging around, but they tolerated him.
“I took him to his first Red Sox game,” Paul said. “He was 12 or 13 years old. George came with his glove, hoping to catch a foul ball.”
Back then, the Red Sox had batting practice in the morning and the games were in the afternoon, he said. He took George to a restaurant and George, a very picky eater, took his time.
“He wouldn’t eat some of the food at the restaurant and I said, ‘We’re not going to leave until you eat.’ Pretty soon, he’d finish up his food – but maybe not totally.”
“My poor mother. George was frail when he was young and my mother was told that goat’s milk would be great for George, and she’d go all the way to Clinton to get goat’s milk for him and then put it in a regular milk bottle, to camouflage that it was goat’s milk. But when I tell the story, George always says, ‘As if I didn’t know!’”
He also recalled that when George was an altar boy and had to read the missal (book of prayers used during Mass) in church, their father would help him practice.
“Our father said, ‘I’ll go to one end of the house and you go to the other and you read it.’ George would read it and my father would say, ‘A little louder!’”
Paul said his mother and father were very focused on their children and encouraged them always to do their best.
“We were very, very lucky. We didn’t have a heck of a lot of money, but we certainly had an awful lot of love.”