WATERVILLE — John “Swisher” Mitchell, the well-known brother of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell and celebrated local and Colby College coach, died Wednesday at the age of 91.

Mitchell, a renowned athlete who earned his nickname on the basketball court, remained active in local sports, acting as an assistant coach for the Colby men’s basketball team for 44 years until he retired in 2011. The iconic Waterville native started coaching freshman sports at Colby in 1968.

Before that, he was the point guard on the Waterville High basketball team that won the New England championship in 1944. Last year for his 90th birthday, hundreds of former players and colleagues gathered together to celebrate his life and career.

George Mitchell, John’s brother, said while his brother undoubtedly would be remembered as a great athlete, calling him one of the best basketball players ever to come from Maine, John Mitchell also would be remembered as a great human being, friend, father and husband.

“Somebody once said to me at an event honoring John that it was impossible to know him and not like him, and I think that would be the sentiment of everybody who ever met him,” George Mitchell said Wednesday afternoon. “He had a great way of relating to people. He made friends easily and was always a loyal friend.”

George Mitchell said he was fortunate to have John Mitchell and two other older brothers, and a younger sister, all of whom served as inspirations to him. He also said his brother was a great storyteller.

“I told someone else today that his stories will be remembered because he repeated them so often,” Mitchell recalled, saying while most people told their stories once, “the Swisher repeated his stories, and they were always great.”

“We are sure going to miss him,” George Mitchell said. “He was very much beloved and very much admired.”

John Mitchell’s wife of 63 years, Prinella, died three years ago. Mitchell’s own health had been failing, according to a statement from Colby College.

“Our thoughts are with the extended Mitchell family, truly one of Waterville’s greatest gifts, and to the legions of friends whose lives were enriched by John ‘Swisher’ Mitchell,” the statement read. “For those of us who had the privilege of knowing him, we will always be comforted by the memory of his charming, mischievous smile and expansive heart. We are all better for having had Swisher in our lives.”

Mitchell’s life was invariably tied to sports, so much so that his brother George Mitchell often joked that his brother was the more famous of the two. In a Morning Sentinel sports column from last year, George Mitchell recounted meeting Boston Celtics’ legend Bob Cousy. At first, Cousy didn’t recognize Mitchell, until the then-Senate Majority broke the ice.

“I’m the Swisher’s brother,” Mitchell said, and Cousy’s face brightened.

“You’re the Swisher’s brother? Come here and give me a big hug,” Mitchell recalled Cousy saying. “He’s telling me how great the Swisher is, as if I didn’t know.”

Bill Mitchell, John Mitchell’s nephew, recalled his uncle as a great man who was committed to his family, especially to his wife, saying “they were destined to be together.”

“He worshiped her. He loved her in a way we could all benefit from,” Bill Mitchell said.

He also recalled his uncle as someone who was dedicated to his community and to education, remembering him as someone who made everyone around him feel special. He said Mitchell was someone “who could motivate and inspire you to be the best you could be.”

Dick Whitmore, the former Colby men’s head basketball coach who worked for years with Mitchell, recalled him as someone who will be dearly missed.

“He was my deepest friend and my dearest friend,” Whitmore said. “John and I coached together for 40 years and it was just a joy to be with him because he was knowledgeable. He was amazing.”

Whitmore said Mitchell had struggled with his health the past few years but “battled all the way through.”

“He was a fighter and he fought all the way to the end,” he said, “and it’s a huge loss.”

He called Mitchell one of the greatest athletes in Waterville history, if not the greatest, mentioning his 1944 championship and his decades with Colby. Coming from a prominent family, Whitmore said, Mitchell spent years as a coach and teacher.

“To me he was a dear friend,” he said. “Our families were very close, and he was always somebody you could count on and he was a joy to be around.”

According to a news release from Colby, Mitchell played college basketball at the University of Rhode Island, where he was a two-time All Yankee Conference selection. After serving in the Navy, he returned to teach and coach at John Bapst High School in Bangor. He moved to Arizona for two years to teach and coach before returning to coach at Waterville High School from 1959 to 1964.

“Swisher was a legend, but that doesn’t do justice in encapsulating who he was and the impact he had. His storied career as a player and incredible insight as a coach were amazing accomplishments,” said current Colby head coach Damien Strahorn. “But Swisher was so much more. His personality was captivating, his storytelling mesmerizing, and the impact he had transformed lives for a lifetime. We will all miss Swisher immensely, but in a wonderful way his spirit will live on in all of us — and for that we are truly blessed.”

At his birthday celebration last year, family, friends and alumni honored him with the John “Swisher” Mitchell Assistant Coach for Men’s Basketball at Colby fund, the first endowed assistant coaching position at Colby.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

filed under: