PORTLAND – George Mitchell came to Portland on Wednesday to talk about prospects for peace in the Middle East, but he had to tell his audience about two strangers who transformed his life.

Mitchell, a Waterville native who became the U.S. Senate majority leader and, two years ago, President Obama’s special envoy to the Mideast, spoke at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. It was his first speaking engagement on the Mideast since he resigned in May as special envoy.

Mitchell said he accepted the invitation to be the featured speaker in USM’s annual Wright Express Leadership and Creativity Event Series not because he wanted to talk about the region, but because he wanted to promote the Mitchell Institute, a Portland-based organization that since its inception in 1995 has given out more than $8 million in scholarships to more than 1,800 graduating seniors from every high school in Maine.

In a world with rapidly changing technology, Mitchell said, it is more important than ever to make sure the state’s young people get a good education.

He was given that opportunity by two strangers. Mitchell, when he was a high school senior, couldn’t afford college — his father was a janitor at Colby College — and he was considering going to work at a paper mill in Winslow.

But a Waterville businessman and Bowdoin College’s director of admissions got him into Bowdoin. He worked as an oil and lumber truck driver to pay for his college expenses — a job arranged by the admissions director — and graduated from Bowdoin in 1954.

“These men didn’t know me, but they made it possible for me to go to college,” Mitchell told the audience, “and that has stuck with me throughout my entire life.”

He said, “If Maine needs anything, we need skilled, knowledgeable young people who will stay in Maine to work.”

In an interview before his speech, Mitchell said he has enjoyed his time away from politics, spending a good part of this summer at his home in Seal Harbor, where he celebrated his 78th birthday.

Mitchell spent time with his children, ages 10 and 14, also got a chance to visit his adult daughter, who lives in South Portland.

Mitchell was among Obama’s first appointments. He was named Mideast envoy on Jan. 22, 2009, two days after Obama took office. At the time, he said he would take the assignment for two years. Although he served slightly longer than planned, he was unable to achieve his goal of Mideast peace.

Mitchell said the solution is for Israel and Palestine to agree to form separate states. “It’s complex and difficult, with a long and tangled history,” he said.

He said the Arab Spring, a reference to the uprisings that led to the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, represent some of the most important events in the region’s history.

Mitchell said the key to peace in the region is resolving tension between Israel and Palestine. He said the Palestinians deserve the right to govern themselves, but Israelis should not have to worry about their safety.

“The Palestinians are not going to get a state until the people of Israel have achieved a reasonable state of security,” Mitchell said.

USM President Selma Botman, a scholar of modern Egyptian history, also spoke at the event. Botman said the Egyptian revolt changed the Middle East forever.

“Their calls for justice and fairness are resonating with all segments of the population. . . . They are making the case for a society where their voices can be heard,” she said.

Mitchell remains cautiously optimistic that peace in the Middle East can be achieved.

“It may not happen in the immediate future,” he said, “but I hope and pray I will get to see it in my lifetime.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]