September 12, 2010

Mitchell: From small town to governor's race

Libby Mitchell's life story has always involved hard work, politics and caring about the less fortunate.

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

GAFFNEY, S.C. - Harrill's Grocery, located just across East Frederick Street from the Harrill family home, was a big part of life in this small town.

Libby Mitchell
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Libby Mitchell

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Libby Harrill Mitchell’s parents, Lula Mae and Charlie, pose in front of Harrill’s Grocery, the family store, in this undated photo provided by Libby’s sister, Joyce Childers of Gaffney.

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PROFILING THE CANDIDATES

This is the first in a series of profiles of Maine’s gubernatorial candidates. The series continues with Paul LePage on Sept. 19; Eliot Cutler on Sept. 26; Shawn Moody on Oct. 3; and Kevin Scott on Oct. 10.

LIBBY MITCHELL TIMELINE

BORN June 22, 1940

GRADUATED from Gaffney High School, 1958; Furman University, 1962

MOVED to Maine in 1971

FIRST ELECTED to the Maine House, 1974; Speaker of House, 1997-1998

FIRST ELECTED to Maine Senate, 2004; Senate president: 2009-present

ANNOUNCED RUN for governor August 2009

CHECK OUT OUR Governor's Race special section

It's also where, in the 1950s, a woman who would become one of Maine's most powerful politicians learned about hard work, interacting with the public and helping those who were struggling to make ends meet.

These skills shaped Elizabeth "Libby" Harrill from an early age, and helped her become who she is today: Senate President Libby Mitchell, the Democratic candidate for Maine governor.

Libby -- nobody ever called her Elizabeth -- stocked shelves and waited on customers. She traveled with her father as he made his rounds to supply other small stores with items like gum and aspirin. She watched her parents allow certain customers to put items on a charge slip, even though they knew some would never come back to pay.

"It was truly an honor system," Mitchell said. "Nobody did without. If you were on hard times, my father always made sure you did not do without. You do not go hungry. I will not let you go hungry."

Growing up in Gaffney, Libby Harill did all the usual things. She sorted peaches at the Sunny Slope peach shed in the summer. She cheered Gaffney High football on Friday night, went to the movies on Saturday and to church on Sunday.

Libby did some unusual things as well. She was student body president, Miss Homecoming, and was named "most popular" in the high school yearbook. Friends say she was a natural leader, even at a young age.

"Libby really had a very, very strong calmness about her," said Mike Daniel, a former high school sweetheart and fellow 1958 Gaffney High School graduate. "She had really strong convictions."

Libby Mitchell, born in 1940 to Charlie and Lula Mae, hasn't lived in Gaffney since she graduated from high school in 1958. She hasn't lived in South Carolina since working as a college admissions counselor at her alma mater, Furman University, in the mid-1960s.

In speeches in Maine, she has often said she "didn't have the good fortune of being born in Maine but I came here just as quickly as I could."

Yet her formative years in the 1950s -- with sock hops, soda fountains, segregation and Sunday morning services at the First Baptist Church -- framed the woman who hopes to be the first female governor in Maine's history.

Her sister, Joyce Childers of Gaffney, has stayed close to the sibling she calls "Lib," despite the distance between them, and the fact her little sister stole the show at Joyce's seventh birthday party.

EARLY YEARS

Over a glass of sweet tea at her Gaffney home, Childers recalled the day -- June 22, 1940 -- her younger sister Elizabeth Anne was born.

"They kept saying you're going to get a baby for your birthday," she said. "They didn't really think they would, so they bought me a doll."

The doll was Princess Elizabeth.

"I was really upset because my mother had to leave my birthday party (to deliver the baby)," she said.

When her parents returned home, they asked what she wanted to name her little sister.

"I picked Elizabeth from that doll," she said. "She was my birthday present."

Her younger sister was born seven years to the day after she was, and the women to this day continue to celebrate their mutual birthday together whenever possible, as they did in Maine this past June.

A photo of the sisters taken that day now adorns Childers' refrigerator in Gaffney.

With a seven-year age difference, though, the sisters didn't become close friends until later in life. Childers remembers her baby sister tearing up her paper dolls and telling on Joyce when she misbehaved.

(Continued on page 2)

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Libby Mitchell, 1958

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Downtown Gaffney, S.C., where Libby Mitchell grew up, is now a series of payday loan shops, vacant stores and a few businesses, but it was bustling in the 1950s. “It was a time of innocence,” says childhood friend Vicki Roark of Gaffney.

Susan Cover/MaineToday Media State House Writer

 


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