My dad, Thomas E. Mitchell, Sr., myself (center) and my brother Kenneth on my wedding day almost four years ago. It was one of the proudest days of my Pop’s life, seeing one of his children getting married. (Photo taken by David Williams, my dad’s oldest and best friend from childhood.)
*Every morning in the bathroom mirror, I come face-to-face with my dad’s legacy. From the time I could understand as a child to now as a man, people who knew my dad, Thomas E. Mitchell, Sr. (who passed away this past January at age 78), would complement me on how much I looked and sounded like him.
I’ve never, ever been embarrassed by this. I take a great deal of pride in the fact I resemble my dad so much. There have been instances in which people who knew dad—yet have never met me—would come up to me and ask, “You’re Tom Mitchell’s son, aren’t you?
Yes, the resemblance is that strong. But dad’s legacy goes beyond looks. It’s the values, principles and morals—not to mention a strong spiritual base—he instilled in my sister Carla, brother Kenneth and myself that really mattered. He taught us that character is more important than looks.
I am my father’s son—and proud of it! Like my brother and sister, I am a walking, talking, thinking representation of what he stood for as a man. Dad stood for honesty, integrity, hard work and family.
He always told me he would never mislead me, or tell me something that wasn’t the truth, to trust him. “I won’t steer you wrong son,” he’d say.
And he never did. One of the memories that stands out the most to me is how “Pop” (as I affectionately called him in later years) could get along with any person he came in contact with regardless of color, class status, gender or age.
He was always a gentleman. Well dressed, shoes shined, always flashing a smile for anyone he met. For some reason, I didn’t inherit these traits from “the Old Dude” (another affectionate title I had for him).
It wasn’t until my brother, sister and I were grown that we discovered (and came to appreciate) the real meaning of sacrifice and unconditional love.
My brother and I were scouts and each year there was a weekend camping trip. Now what Ken and I didn’t know then was that Dad hated camping!
He didn’t like sleeping outdoors (in tents) or hanging out in the woods. But because we were his children and we were scouts and we wanted to do it, he put aside his feelings and made sure we had a great time!
That, to me, demonstrates sacrificial love and that’s what dad had for us, his children, and our mom.
No matter what we wanted to do, Dad (along with mom) was our biggest supporter. From parent-teacher conferences to scouts to Pinewood Derby racing to marching band to karate lessons to church speeches, Pop was there. He would take our scouts light bulb and pizza list and cookie lists to work (third-shift at the Briggs and Stratton Foundry) and come back the next day with the sheet full! I’m told one guy didn’t want to buy anything and dad told him that he should if he wanted “job security!”
My brother played football at a young age and in high school. Dad would come home from work, change clothes and go to the Saturday football games and cheer my brother on! Pop supported us even as adults and took pride in each of our accomplishments. He appreciated and loved the diversity of personalities and talents of each of us. He also supported mom in her pursuit of a Master’s Degree in high school guidance counseling, as well as her evangelism work in the church and the community with children and youth.
Pop knew how to navigate the system as a Black man, having grown up in Arkansas (Pine Bluff to be exact). One such example is from my middle school (in my day called junior high school) years when I got into a fight with two guys who had been harassing me. All three of us were taken to the office, reprimanded and sent to our respective classes. The next day, I was summoned to the principal’s office. When I entered his office, there was dad, dressed in a suit, tie and shined shoes as if he was going to church for a meeting later. The principal was seated at his desk.
“Oh Lord, I’m in for it now!” I thought as I sat next to dad. My two “tormentors” soon arrived after I did and we all got down to business.
I can’t recall the entire exchange except for the part when dad told the two offenders that if they continued to mess with me, I would do to them again what I did the day before, proceed to rain punches on them any way I could. My tormentors got the message. They didn’t bother me for the rest of the school year.
As I walked with dad to the main entrance of the school after the meeting in the principal’s office, he told me he had received a call from the school about what happened. So after he got home that morning from work, he showered, changed into a suit (Pop knew he could wear a suit) and came to the school in full protector mode to find out who the heck was messin’ with one of his children!
I told dad I was surprised to see him in a suit and asked if he had a meeting at church after he left the school. Pop gave me one of his classic smiles and said he wore the suit because the principal wasn’t expecting a well-dressed, articulate and concerned Black man to come to his school demanding an end to his son’s harassment. What he did and said on that day has stayed with me since. That incident was my first lesson on race and perception, compliments of Pop.
There were other lessons of course; kernels of wisdom, advice, counsel and comfort. The lessons never stopped. Pop taught even when he wasn’t talking. His actions were teachable moments, whether it was with my mom or my brother and sister. At St. Mark AME Church he served unwaveringly as a Steward who knew every corner of that church building and where everything should or shouldn’t be, as well as how things should be run. At Mt. Zion Baptist Church he drove the church van during his retirement years, picking up children for its day-care program. Mt. Zion became his second church home where he was just as admired and respected as he was at St. Mark. Pop was about walking the walk. He truly led by example; giving any and everything he did his all. I really miss the “Old Dude.” I especially miss our every other Thursday lunches at McDonald’s. He looked so forward to them. We would talk about everything under the sun while we ate.
Pop had this habit of eating his French Fries down to the tip and discarding them on the tray. And he always insisted that the fries be fresh.
I, my sister and brother—our family—is dad’s legacy. Who we are and how others know us is a reflection of his teaching, counsel and protection.
It’s a legacy I will pass on to my grandson, Timothy. I try to instill in him what my dad instilled in me, so when he grows up and looks in the bathroom mirror he will see a reflection of me, which will also be a reflection of Pop. Though he’s no longer here to give me his counsel, his teachings, spirit and memory are constant.
Whenever I’m at a crossroads, I will ask myself: “What would Pop do?” Through this reasoning, I will still be hearing his voice and be guided by his wisdom.”
Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr. is the editor of the Milwaukee Community Journal newspaper. Contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org.