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

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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

The Harrill sisters grew up among large extended families, with aunts, uncles and cousins all living nearby.

"If we didn't have what we needed, we didn't know it," Childers said.

COLLEGE YEARS

The Gaffney schools and Furman were still segregated when Mitchell attended. Integration would come to Gaffney a few years after she graduated.

While at Furman -- about an hour by car from Gaffney -- the school "united" in 1961 by spending more than $2 million on women's dorms to bring male and female students onto the same campus, according to a September 1961 story in The Furman Paladin, the college newspaper.

"When I started, I started on what was called the women's campus," she said. "By the time I graduated, we were fully co-ed."

It was part of a series of changes at the then-1,600-student college, which was considered one of the top liberal arts universities in the state.

As she was in high school, Mitchell was active in college politics, as vice president of the student body and president of the junior class.

She said the positive experience in high school, where she felt students could make a difference in how things were run, led her to continue to be involved in college. And at Furman, she was able to shape the future of the co-ed university by helping to write the guiding document for student government.

"When we were writing a student government constitution for the new campus, women were so afraid they'd be shut out we wrote ourselves into a second class position," she said. "We said a woman would be vice president and I was the vice president."

Three months later, a poll of students showed them closely divided on the question of whether to admit "all properly qualified applicants regardless of race or color," the newspaper reported. The student vote was 512-432 in favor, while faculty overwhelmingly supported the idea of admitting blacks.

Mitchell said she doesn't remember the student vote, but does recall that college administrators met with student leaders, including herself, to ask their opinion.

"There wasn't a single student leader who said anything but we're totally supportive," she said.

One summer while in college, Mitchell traveled to Fishkill, N.Y., to serve as a camp counselor for the Fresh Air Fund camping program that was then sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune. The program gave city children, nearly all of them black, a chance to experience the outdoors.

Before she was accepted, she was asked to answer the question: Are you prejudiced?

"I said no," she said. "And then when I got there I was put to the test because my three roommates were black. The minute we began interacting with one another, I began to see they were more concerned about my reaction to them than I was concerned about their reaction to me.

"All of a sudden we were counselors trying to figure out how to take care of these kids who had never been out of the city. We lived together and worked together all summer. It was a life-changing experience. It wasn't just a theoretical approach to integration. I was living it and seeing how these young black counselors had been held back."

Today, that chapter of Southern history is still difficult for people of her generation in Gaffney to discuss.

"This is the part that is so painful to many of us who grew up (in the South)," Mitchell said. "It was the way things were and you didn't always find it odd. It took a while for you to become sensitive, that this wasn't right. Why is there a whites-only water fountain? Why are there places that black children can't go or eat?"

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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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