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
State House Bureau

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Libby Mitchell
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Libby Mitchell


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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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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.


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

The girls' father, Charlie, was a traveling salesman of household items to grocery stores. Later, he worked with his wife to open Harrill's Grocery in the late 1940s.

Looking back, Mitchell said she loved working in the store, and her sister offered to do the housework so she could spend more time across the street with customers.

"The ultimate triumph was to get to operate the cash register myself," she said.

Childers said their father, a member of the county election commission, strongly encouraged his girls to vote. She recalls going to the town square on election night to see the results being posted.

Politics was part of the family's life. Their mother's father, Jesse G. Wright, served as the elected Cherokee County sheriff in the 1920s and 1930s and served in the state House of Representatives in 1918 representing Gaffney.

According to the Journal of the General Assembly of South Carolina from 1918, Wright -- whose occupation is listed as a farmer -- chaired the Incorporations and Engrossed Bills committees and served on the Fish, Game and Forestry Committee.

Another relative, their mother's cousin Julian Wright, was county sheriff from 1951 to 1970. (He's noted in local history for apprehending the notorious Gaffney Strangler, Leroy Martin, who murdered four women in the late 1960s).


In addition to the store, Mitchell worked at V. Caggiano & Sons Sunny Slope Farms peach shed, a low-slung building on the outskirts of Gaffney where high school students sorted peaches.

Just as most Aroostook County teenagers help when the potatoes come in, teenagers in Cherokee County would work long hours in the summer when the peaches were ripe.

"If you were a grader, you picked out the bad peaches," said childhood friend Vicki Roark of Gaffney. "Or you were a ringer, and you would take the prettiest peaches and they would put them on top of the basket."

Sometimes they worked until 1 or 2 in the morning during the busy season. The girls would come home itchy from the peach fuzz, Roark said.

Mitchell also worked at the counter of a local jeweler during the winter to earn money for Christmas presents.

"I worked because my father expected us to work," she said. "We were really expected to do our part."

When she wasn't at work, Mitchell and her friends spent time at the soda fountain downtown at City Pharmacy and drank cherry Cokes, said Carolyn Gregory, a fellow member of the Gaffney class of 1958.

Gregory remembers "the best barbecue sandwiches for a quarter that you have ever put in your mouth."

They say Mitchell was a standout student.

"We would be in an English class where we would have to write essays and she would use words I had never heard of before," Gregory said. "I can bet you I remembered them."

Football was king, and the girls wore wool skirts and sweaters to every game, even if it was still hot. Rivals Spartanburg and Gaffney played every Thanksgiving.

It was a time of unlocked doors, when parents would yell from the porch when it was time to come home. The downtown, which is now a series of payday loan shops, vacant stores and a few businesses, was safe and bustling.

"It was a time of innocence," Roark said.

Daniel, who was senior class president when Mitchell was head of the student body, said it was also a time when parents -- particularly the Harrills -- looked after all children, not just their own.

"Even as a kid, getting to go to Mr. Charlie's store, that was big," he said. "(Libby's) mother and Charlie were just two grand people. They were practically the parents to most of the kids that came in there. They didn't mind calling your mother or daddy if you misbehaved."

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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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