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Robert Mitchell, Newton North Latin teacher, dies

Posted by Your Town  May 30, 2009 11:20 AM

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Robert Mitchell, a beloved Latin teacher at Newton North High School, died earlier this week, according to school officials and former students.

A school official said Mitchell, 60, had worked for Newton schools since 1990.

''Bob Mitchell was a gifted teacher, a treasured colleague and an extraordinary human being,'' Newton School Superintendent Jeffrey Young said Saturday. "Everyone in the Newton North community will miss Bob; our days at North will not be the same with him.''

The Globe received word of the death from former students, who emailed with remembrances of a teacher with a never ending quest for knowledge.

"Once a student casually asked him if there was a translation of the Gettysburg Address in Latin. There was not, and so Mr. Mitchell came into school at six o’clock the next morning and translated it himself, from memory, unaided by any dictionary, within a matter of hours. He filled Room 318’s two wall-length chalkboards in his narrow, near-unintelligible calligraphy,'' wrote 2007 Newton North grad Esther Mobley. Read Esther's tribute here.

Newton resident Laura Merrill said Mr. Mitchell was "an example to his students of someone who loved learning.''

"My personal contact was at parent night at the school,'' Merrill said in an email. "Other teachers tell parents how they will grade, or what topics will be covered. Mr. Mitchell dove right into a fascinating lesson on Latin and Roman history and then spent about a minute on what books would be read during the year. By giving us a Latin lesson he answered the question that most parents had: "Why does my child insist on taking Latin?" ''

Former students are offering their condolences, often in Latin.

"Mr. Mitchell was my Latin teacher 25 years ago and I will always remember him fondly. Requiscat in Pace, magister,'' wrote a poster on a teacher rating website, where other students consistently praised Mr. Mitchell.

The Globe is working on an obituary of Mr. Mitchell. In the meantime, readers are welcome to post their remembrances below.

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26 comments so far...
  1. Bob Mitchell was an example of how a supremely gifted, inspired, uniquely wonderful individual can play an important role in the lives of many people by doing his job in an unsung, ordinary setting. Mr. Mitchell's many students in public high school know that he passed on to them a legacy of great value, transmitted with respect and joy and passion. To lose Tom DePeter and Robert Mitchell in scarcely more than a week! As a parent of a former Newton North HS student, I am very, very sad, as well as very, very grateful for their lives and their service.

    Posted by NM May 30, 09 02:48 PM
  1. Ave et Vale, mi frater.

    Posted by Shane May 30, 09 06:34 PM
  1. O dulces comitum valete coetus,
    longe quos simul a domo profectos
    diversae varie viae reportant.

    Safe journey, Mr. Mitchell.

    Posted by Joshua Myrvaagnes May 30, 09 08:48 PM
  1. I have lost a dear colleague whose intelligence, passion for learning, passion for sharing what he knew, care for everyone indiscriminantly will be hallmarks to those who were lucky enough to know him. During the last weeks he told me that no0ne
    knew what to say about St. Thomas More when his death was imminent. Even his wife said that she did not know what to say. Well, this will not be the case with Robert Mitchell. Everyone has a favorite story and will share it willingly in the effort to keep his spirit and our love for him alive as long aspossible.

    Posted by Yvonne Davey May 30, 09 09:00 PM
  1. Rest in peace, Mr. Mitchell. You will be missed!

    Posted by Jared Miller (NNHS Class of 1998) May 31, 09 08:29 AM
  1. Mr Mitchell was exceptionally smart & gave so much to his students. I remember hearing about how he would translate books into Sanskrit for his after school club - he did this on his own time because he loved and got joy from his students.

    When my daughter was about to start North, she wasn't able to take all of the electives she wanted, and was going to have to drop one subject, reluctantly. I phoned Mr. Mitchell, and spoke to him about the Latin program at North, he told me, "Latin is the most important thing in your child's lives. Lives? Did I say lives? well, perhaps we do have more than one life, and in which case, Latin would be the most important thing in all of them" I am so glad a tribute was started here, he was too important & influenced so many minds to go urecognized.
    I a

    Posted by AK May 31, 09 02:29 PM
  1. In a world of conformity and standing pat rather than pushing for personal growth, Bob Mitchell was a dear friend of many years that will be missed dearly. His non-linear thinking, his unorthodox ways all with an underpinning of love, wisdom, humor and compassion was something that profoundly influenced, challenged and delighted me. Bob would be at ease with Kings and paupers because he found each person interesting and wanted to know their stories. I have never met a person with such a wide variety of things which he could discuss with ease. Once he, his dear friend Michael McKenna and I got tickets to the Red Sox game and were seated at the 600 Club, excited for the view and all the celebrities up there. Bob calmly pulls out a book in Greek and begins a deep conversation with some of the patron about Aristotle. All the while Bob's carrying on a commentary about the game...something like "Yes, Aristotle was correct when he, Beckett shouldn't have thrown a breaking pitch on a 3 and 2 count!" Deep and knowledgable on so many levels yet simple in the love and smile and hug that said it all about his heart. You will be missed, dear Bob, but never forgotten.

    Posted by Frank LaTorre May 31, 09 09:02 PM
  1. My colleague and dear friend Bob Mitchell:
    Even in the last weeks of his life, he was so happy with the scores his students received on the National Latin Exam...
    He was like a beloved uncle to my son and daughter. A welcome guest at our Passover seders, over chicken soup with matzah balls, he pointed out examples of the subjunctive in the Haggadah.
    Sunt lacrimae rerum.
    And yet, Latin scholars, the love, the hope and inspiration that he has left behind for us are stronger than death.

    Posted by Mindy Goodman Levitt June 1, 09 11:30 AM
  1. Mr. Mitchell taught me from 1994-1998. Mr. Mitchell taught with an unparalleled energy. Bouncing around the classroom, alternating between rapid-fire exclamations and demonstrative sing-song cadence, he was at full-speed all the time. How he did that, day after day, year after year, was a mystery to me until very recently.

    I ran into him in 2008 and he hadn't lost a step. Talking fast, asking questions quicker than I could answer them, he instantly dazzled me with his interest. Not only did he remember me, not only could he associate me with my classmates, not only did he remember that he had taught my sister, he remembered where we both went to college and asked how we had enjoyed our experiences. He remembered that because ten years earlier he had been so interested in us, so invested in our education that he made a point of knowing where our education was going after we left his classroom.

    Mr. Mitchell understood his mission as an educator and he savored it. His passion for teaching and for watching his students succeed was the source of his trademark energy. He was the classic example of a teacher who "got it," and he will be greatly missed.

    Posted by Ben Schlesinger (NNHS '98) June 1, 09 12:09 PM
  1. Does anyone know whether this Mr. Mitchell taught in Weymouth previously? I had a Mr. Mitchell for Latin who was one of the best teachers I ever met.

    Posted by dga June 1, 09 09:22 PM
  1. Yes, this is the same Mr. Mitchell who taught Latin in Weymouth, Newton Country Day, and Waltham.

    Posted by smitch June 2, 09 07:59 AM
  1. As Ms. Mobley stated, Mr. Mitchell was indeed a force of nature. Most of us in my class agreed that he had come from another universe and we were blessed to have been there during his time on this earth. On parent-teacher conference night, my parents looked forward to seeing two people: Mr. Therrien in the drafting lab and Mr. Mitchell. Every few years since graduating NNHS I would see him (usually in the Harvard Book Store) and he was always happy to see me - similar to Mr. Schlesinger's experience he remembered everything about me every time. He freely admitted to taking Harvard courses solely to gain access to the ancient collections at the Widener Library where he would read all night in the original Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit. He used to run the Boston Marathon when it started at the 12pm start time, but would run out to Hopkinton first from Boston.

    I have to admit, I chuckled when I read this article only because I never knew his age. We all used to guess in class, he would never reveal it, and then finally we gave up figuring he was either immortal or perhaps an old friend of his beloved Cicero. If there is life after death, I'm sure he is taking his West Highland Terrier for a walk right now, catching up on lost time. I think many of us could go on and on . . .

    Posted by Josh Seeherman (NNHS '97) June 2, 09 09:09 AM
  1. I've really enjoyed reading the comments posted about my "Uncle Bob." These shared stories and memories are so beautiful and heartfelt, inspiring, legendary, and funny, funny, funny. Please keep them coming!

    Posted by Mitchell-Polatty June 2, 09 11:53 AM
  1. I took Latin with Mr. Mitchell for three years, and he was by far one of the most inspiring teachers I have ever had. There are so many amazing anecdotes about him running through my head right now, it's hard to choose. Just a sample: He never let himself be photographed. He used to tell us how he would always keep a few dozen books in his pickup truck, in order not to waste the time spent waiting at red lights. There was a rumor that he had a twin brother, but no one ever found out for sure. On one of his tangential lectures, which would wander from Catullus to Al Pacino and back again, he compared one of his fellow teachers to a horse ("She's always so well groomed"). But the most important thing for me was how deeply he cared about his students. When I came back to visit him a year after graduating from high school, he wrote down his name, address, and phone number (information he rarely gave out, it seems) on a little piece of paper and gave it to me, telling me to get in touch if I ever needed anything ("But make sure you call me after 2am, I won't be home before then"). I still have that piece of paper in my wallet.

    Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
    advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
    ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
    et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem,
    quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
    heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
    nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
    tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
    accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu,
    atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

    Posted by Joanna (class of '04) June 2, 09 03:33 PM
  1. Mr. Mitchell was my Latin Teacher in Weymouth for 2 years. . . . . I am pleased that he found a long-term home at Newton North. Newton got a truly great teacher.

    Some random memories:

    Latin 2 was scheduled the same period as pre-Calculus, so he invited three of us, and arrived to school early all year, so we could take Latin in his office before the school day officially started.

    You could hear him approach the classroom from far down the hall by the unmistakable clamor of his clogs.

    He ran marathons back in those days, with a best time around 2:30.

    His sweaters were often tattered.

    He always had our complete attention.

    Posted by dga June 2, 09 09:09 PM
  1. Mr. Mitchell was always a very healthy guy, but once a year he would go to Dunkin' Donuts and get a donut. A Boston Kreme donut. I think that sort of represents what he was like- when he decided to do something he did it with total dedication, whether it was recreating Gene Kelly's moves at a construction site, teaching Latin, or just getting a donut.

    Posted by Greg Campbell ('99) June 3, 09 12:37 PM
  1. While it was with great sadness that we learned of Bob Mitchell’s passing, it is gratifying and comforting to hear from so many of his students & colleagues of the way in which he positively impacted their lives. Bob was my best friend for half a century. We grew up together and graduated from high school and BC together. He was my best man at our wedding and godfather to our daughter, Emily. My wife Sue & I will miss him greatly & have years of memories upon which to reflect.

    I too met him via the Latin language, though in a very different context. At age 9 we studied to be altar boys & had to learn the Latin Mass. He ate up Latin for the next 9 years, when we retired as an altar boys as seniors in high school (with no pension). He took 4 years of Latin in high school, but I always was suspect about his motivation. After 2 years of Latin, Bob was the only student in the school who was interested in taking 3rd & 4th year Latin, which was only taught on the girls’ side of the school. Our high school was 2 separate schools with the same name & building, the boys being taught by the De La Salle Christian Brothers on 1 side and the girls by nuns in the other side. Any opportunity to get over to the girls’ side (legitimately, anyway) was rare indeed, & it was with great skepticism that we watched “Mitch” undertake his mission to “the other side”. While our class was small (35), we were inventive indeed in fabricating opportunities to cause contact with the females, though none, but Bob, would delve into the unimaginable by actually taking Latin to accomplish the feat. He remained a bachelor but his love of Latin only grew. So much for our skepticism.

    It does not surprise me that he became a great teacher. He always had a passion for what he did, however unorthodox the subject or his approach to it. He invested heavily in whatever he loved to do and took great enjoyment from it. He worried little about other’s judgements about him (you teach Latin by day and work construction at night? You must be kidding!). He shared that joy when he taught, I am sure. Wise are those who see that they were the beneficiaries of that joy.

    A million memories swirl in my mind as I come to grips with the fact that I will never have another beer with him in the bleachers at Fenway. Will never discuss Dickens, throw a whiffle curve at him, meet him at the marathon’s finish line, debate Yaz’s swing or discuss the meaning of life with him.

    I don’t know if Cicero ever made it to heaven. If he did, I hope he’s prepared for a long talk with the guy who just clip-clopped past the Gates in sandals, leaving St. Peter to decipher his cryptic handwriting when he blew past after signing in, chalk on his hands & a book in each. It was Bob.

    Requiscat in Pace, dear friend.

    Posted by Joe King (longtime friend) June 3, 09 03:00 PM
  1. What does it mean when you hear of your Latin teacher's early death 3 decades later and you are devastated at work? That is the experience of a high school friend and me when we saw this notice. We were students of Mr. Mitchell at Weymouth South when we were 17 and he was 29 or 30 and it sounds like his ferocious energy never diminished. Newton North was lucky to have him. He turned his love for learning and his intense attention on you and you thrived. He let me advance to the third year translation class so I could "get to the good stuff before college." I still have the Latin verse book he gave me as some kind of prize and the Latin verse he wrote inside. I loved his class so much that I considered being a classics major. Even now, after years of Ivy League professors and now professional academics, his passion for books and learning and sport stand him apart as a dedicated scholar athlete and model for students. We wondered if he translated Greek at stoplights. We wondered how he knew so much about so many topics and he even took the time to discuss them with you! We thought he wrestled in Rome! We were so enchanted to have this creative thinker enter our white bread world. I am so sad that he fell ill and passed and that other students will miss his great gifts. Godspeed, Mr. Mitchell, and may many grateful Roman chariots swing low to carry you home.

    Posted by WeymouthSouth'78 June 3, 09 03:09 PM
  1. Although I only took Latin with Mr. Mitchell for one year, the imprint he left on my high school education is unmeasurable. The energy he exuded each day in class demonstrated the passion he had for the subject and love he had for teaching. I will never forget his signature penmanship plastered on the chalkboard nor his wacky stories that left his students in disbelief, such as his tales of being struck by lightning! It is his dedication to the classics, exuberance in the classroom, and ability to remember so many of his students that continues to inspire me as an educator. You will definitely be missed but always remembered Mr. Mitchell.

    Posted by Caroline Occean (NNHS '98) June 3, 09 10:32 PM
  1. As a Latin student for too short at time at Weymouth South, I lived for Mr Mitchell's 'asides' almost as much as he did. I remember trying so hard to follow the links from one obscure subject to another. I thought to myself 'God, wouldn't it be great to have learned enough so that someday I could actually understand all of this.' What an inspiration!
    I moved to California and had to give up Latin, because my new school didn't offer it. But I took Bob's advice, and ended up studying Greek (and French) at Trinity College, Dublin.
    For those who didn't know, he actually ran 50 and 100 mile races, as well as marathons - back in the day. And he read 4-5 hours of Latin or Greek every day, even, as many will remember, as he ran through the halls in his wooden clogs.
    I never met his twin brother, or his family, but I send you love and prayers. You can be so proud of Bob, he inspired so many young people and touched their lives.
    It breaks my heart to think that he died of skin cancer. He treated his body as a temple - except for the Oreos and McBreakfasts, of course!

    Posted by Sue Doherty June 4, 09 06:20 AM
  1. Bonum certamen certaste.
    Cursum consumaste.
    Requiescas nunc in pace,
    Currens Furens carissime.

    Posted by david gill June 4, 09 11:08 AM
  1. nixus te magistro meo doctus, hoc carmen tralatum tibi dedico

    Cognoscisne rosam esse natam opaco
    in foramine marmoris plateae?
    Naturae superans ita ipsa legem,
    grassari sine cruribus potis fit.
    Videtur iocus esse, sed tenendis
    somniis didicit reducere auram.
    Pervivat rosa quae virescuit cum
    vili quisque eam ubique ita aestimasset

    Posted by bd June 8, 09 11:20 PM
  1. Bob Mitchell and I met around 1982. He was the best friend of my late husband Mike McKenna. They met at Boston College in the 70’s, and were running buddies. Bob was an usher at our wedding in 1985, and has also been a very dear friend to me and our kids Erin and Sam. Bob spent numerous weekends and holidays at our home in Portland, Maine. I remember visits when he would bring his dog Pete, the West Highland Terrier. He loved that dog! Bob loved to escape to Portland, and hang out with us; but he never stayed long…or should I say he never stayed long enough. He would usually call us to say he would be on his way to Portland after he ran a few errands; then it was anyone’s guess what time he would actually show up. We eagerly awaited his arrival. It was always exciting when at last his green pickup truck pulled into our driveway and he came to the door (always with his backpack filled with books). I usually had a few ice cold Miller Lites ready for him. He loved to hang out in our yard , just reading the Globe, talking about a variety of subjects, and maybe having a burger. In the summer he loved to watch the Portland Sea Dogs play at the nearby baseball stadium. And he loved swimming in the ocean; he liked Pine Point Beach and Ferry Beach, both in Scarborough, Maine. Afterward, we would stop at Ken’s Place, a popular casual takeout place; there he would immerse himself in his Fisherman’s Platter of fried seafood. He typically stayed just one night, as he always wanted to return home to grade some papers or to write a student recommendation. He spent many long hours writing those recommendations, but he would have it no other way. He truly loved teaching and his students. Although we never saw him in the classroom, we know he was a gifted and beloved teacher. He was one of the smartest people I have ever met. (He told us once that he was the Friend someone called when they were a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire; though I don’t know who that was, I am sure Bob advised them of the correct answer.) He loved to talk sports, current events, politics, anything. And he always took great interest in my activities and those of our kids. Although he was very scholarly, he could talk to anybody. Mike and I used to joke that whenever we would take Bob along to a party, Bob knew more people than us when we left. Bob and Mike ran the Casco Bay Marathon, the Maine Coast Marathon, and the Boston Marathon (Bob ran that race 25 times from 1970 – 1995). Bob told me a couple months ago that his personal best time was “2:29 and some change” and his best Boston time was 2:36:37. When I asked what he liked about running, he said it was “just fun”, just that simple for him. Bob and Mike also shared a love of Boston College football, holding season tickets together for years. I will forever treasure the memories of Bob and all the good times. I will especially treasure the numerous visits with him in the hospital, especially on his 60th birthday on May 4th, as well as the phone conversations over the past few months. When I think of Bob, I can hear him say some of his common phrases: “Here’s the thing…..” “That’s neat!” and “Absolutely”. There are a few things that I have said repeatedly to Bob over the past 27 years: “You are one of my favorite people.” “You are always welcome in our home.” and “You always leave too soon…you always leave us wanting more.” And now, that last statement says it all. We will miss our dear friend.

    Posted by Sharon McKenna, personal friend in Maine June 14, 09 01:05 PM
  1. I've heard students say that it was rumored that Bob Mitchell was Ceasar, or at the very least, a reborn Roman. I am sure of it. In those last days, he said a couple of times that his helmet was hurting his head. I could just see that short metal-mohawked helmet as I feigned pushing it up and off his forehead to relieve him - it was surely Ceasar's helmet that I was adjusting. Bob absolutely was a man of another time among us.
    If you knew him at all, you know about his aversion to technology. He certainly wasn't a big user of e-mail, he really wasn't too fond of the phone either - and I mean a land phone, forget a cell phone. He had to use a laptop at school for attendance and grades and it seemed so strange to see him use it; it just didn't fit him, it was oxymoronic - Bob and any technology. Even his manual typewriter seemed far too advanced a piece of machinery for Mr. Mitchell. He would furrow his brow and purse his lips as he gently and single-fingeredly hit every key, slowly and with great deliberation - this was language, after all, that he was creating. And that pick-up truck of his really was just a dressed down chariot. The red lights were a nice modern touch for him though; gave him a chance to read on his journey to wherever. And of course he wore sandals in the winter; in all his other lives it was proper attire. His concession to this life was his clothing, the robe had to go. But it is said that he taught his students how to wrap a tunic. I wouldn't be surprised if homing pigeons weren't found somewhere on his property. And perhaps a scroll or two……..I know for certain that the laurel was in his cubicle at school.
    The old Romans surely must have smiled down on him as their self-appointed messenger spread the word, the stories and the glories, of another time. They must have been pleased with how the young warrior made their times so real to so many students. Only such a warrior as he could do that so well, could bring alive what the world refers to as a dead language.
    Remembered for the tales, the legends, the performances, the connections, he is still larger than life. He had a library full of information in his brain so making a connection with anything was not a stretch for Bob. Was he really singing and dancing in the rain with an umbrella and struck by lightning? Only a reincarnated soul (perhaps a Roman one) could survive it if it happened. Did he really have a twin brother? Well, didn't that turn out to be true? So how could you doubt the lightning tale? Why would you doubt anything he said?!
    Bob was my colleague and friend for sixteen years. "Listen to me on this," he would say like he was so very sure of what he was about to say. "Let me say this about that," when he said that I knew I would be getting some kind of an amazing explanation of something. "How ya doin'?" was his greeting in the hallway as he was off to class. We would stop and talk a bit. I would ask if he had a class because he was heading in the general direction of his classroom, "I don't think so," he would say. Our little chat would be interrupted directly when a student would come and tell him that he should be in their class now! He never tired but I suppose that immortals do not tire because they have some other energy driving them. He slept very little. He was a runner and a swimmer, for fun. And he spent many hours at school. He taught Greek at our school and it isn't in our course offerings. He never asked for anything (except pumpkin bread) and he never complained. I never had a discussion with him that I did not walk away having learned something….and having laughed. The thing about Bob was that he actually listened, he was never 'waiting to talk' - he heard what you said and responded to it because he was always right where you were in the conversation. That is not to say that he didn't also have a lot to say. There was so much in his brain, he hoarded information, especially information about language, but all information. Isn't it strange that so knowledgeable a man would have such a good sense of humor? You would think that he would only be serious but that was not the case at all. He understood everythng except, I suspect, the impact that he had on so many people. He would be surprised at all this fuss we're making at losing him. That was also a part of what was so interesting about him - he had no idea the image he was to others. For sure, he never really thought a lot about that sort of thing, that's way too egocentric a place for him to go.
    We talked every night when he was in the hospital. One of the funniest times was when American Idol was eliminating one of the final three singers. I was in my cellar on the phone with him, at the computer and with the television on in the background. It was almost 10 o'clock, Idol was going to eliminate either Gorkey, Lambert or Allen from the show. Bob said, "what's on tv?" I said that I didn't know what was on his tv and he said it was American Idol. I told him the same things was on here. He asked what was happening on the show and I told him about the elimination. He asked who I thought would be cut. I (obviously very knowledgeable) responded, Kris Allen. And together we watched them eliminate Gorkey. I started laughing. I said, "Bob, if we told anybody at school that we are watching American Idol on the phone together - you in the hospital and me in my cellar, they would not believe it! "Why?", he asked…."Why!? Because it's 10 o'clock and I'm still up on a school night but that's minor: you're watching Pop Culture on television over the phone!"
    I really miss the man, I miss his humor, his knowledge, his company and his soul. I really do believe that he's wearing his sandals, comfortable now in his tunic, telling those old Romans what it's like down here on earth.

    Posted by Juanita, colleague and friend June 19, 09 10:42 PM
  1. Mr. Mitchell was my favorite high school teacher – just as he was the favorite teacher of all his students. He entertained and perplexed us endlessly. “Aha! The plot thickens!” he would exclaim facetiously, when introducing a new grammatical rule or the latest development in the tortured life of Apuleius’s Psyche. If you did especially well on a test or a translation, he’d write “Optime quidem” on your paper, in his minuscule, barely legible handwriting – the handwriting of a medieval monk, or (since Mr. Mitchell scoffed at medieval Latin) of an ancient scribe.

    After taking his class for three years, I was unable to continue with Latin 4 year because of a scheduling conflict. So for the first half of my senior year, Mr. Mitchell met with me individually after school, once or twice every week, to go over some of the Latin 4 material – Virgil’s Aeneid, to be precise. He wrote countless recommendations for me, and for all others who asked. I doubt I was influenced by any of my teachers as much, or in so many different ways, as I was influenced by him.

    We, his students, half believed him when he said he was eternal – which meant, according to his definition, that he had never been born and would never die. It did not seem so implausible. The mere fact that a person like him— part Classics scholar, part Dickens-toting Victorian, part construction worker, part athlete and baseball fan—could exist in our otherwise ordinary world was already a miracle. He eschewed both the elitist and the banal. I never heard a cliché escape his lips, and even when grammar called for it he would not use “whom” in everyday conversation because, he said, it sounded pretentious. There was, I think, something of Mary Poppins about him (the slightly stern, wry, mysterious Mary Poppins of Travers’s original books, not the domesticated version played in the film by Julie Andrews): we didn’t quite know where he’d come from or what he was thinking, but he brought a kind of magic with him. Except that in his case, the spoonful of sugar and the medicine (which were sometimes hard to tell apart) were Cicero and Catullus and semi-deponent verbs.

    Even if Mr. Mitchell wasn’t a magician, he certainly seemed eternal, with his fitness regimen and barrel-chested vigor. His manifest indestructibility, both spiritual and physical, made it impossible to imagine him the victim of anyone or anything. To learn that he had succumbed to cancer, therefore, was unbearably sad. And now that he is dead, my previously cheerful memories of Latin class– of the Latin forms Mr. Mitchell made us recite aloud, of the first-year textbook with Ben Hur on the red cover, of his many witticisms and comic eccentricities – have acquired an irreparably tragic tinge.

    I lost touch with Mr. Mitchell about five years ago. Since then I wanted many times to speak with him; but I put it off again and again, believing—mistakenly, as I now know—that another conversation would always be just a phone call away. Though I managed to express to him my gratitude and admiration during his lifetime, I’ll always regret not knowing during the last few months of his life that he was ill, and not calling him one more time. I’m forced to wonder now what his metaphysics were (I never knew), and what consolation, if any, he found during his last weeks. In their comments to this article, his friends and students have conjectured about the kinds of adventures he may be encountering in the afterlife. I hope they are right, and that his afterlife is one in which the plot is forever getting thicker.

    Posted by Svetlana Rukhelman (NNHS '98) June 22, 09 02:02 AM
  1. Like the students who have written above, I, too, was in awe of Mr. Mitchell. I will always remember his penchant for saying "the first" after, rather than before, a noun; 'test the first', or 'paragraph the first', he would exhort us--uniquely serious, but not taking himself seriously, at the same time. Having recently lost a close family friend with similar superhuman qualities, it is not surprising that both shared an infinite capacity for interest in and giving to others.

    I, however, lacking his ability to perform without sleep, vividly remember falling asleep in his class on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Each time, he threatend to make me stand up for the entire class, to prevent me from falling asleep again. I don't know why, maybe his heart was too filled with love, but he never made me do it. I remember that Mr. Mitchell would sweat, often profusely, in class. He always wore a shirt and tie; by the end of class the knot of the tie would be halfway down his shirt to try to cool down. I asked him one day why he didn’t simply not wear a tie. His response was that the attire reflected his attitude; he was “here to work” and he dressed the part, whether in the bitter cold of winter or the sweltering heat of summer (in a classroom with no windows!). I don’t know if he even intended it as a lesson, but it is a conversation I have never forgotten, and each time I roll up my shirtsleeves or loosen my tie, I am reminded of that day.

    As if that weren’t enough, Mr. Mitchell had a knack for stories that seemed too ridiculous to be true, some of which I have know realized are fact only now, from reading the accounts of those who knew him outside the classroom. As others have remarked, he could converse with anyone on almost any subject, not just classics. In high school I lifted weights, and Mr. Mitchell shared with me his passion for enriching the body as well as the mind. But, in classic Mr. Mitchell fashion, he matter-of-factly stated something too absurd to believe: he remarked that in his younger years, he was able to bench press 415 pounds. Staring at this short, slender man with a shock of white hair, despite his ageless mind I simply could not believe that he had accomplished what is normally the purview of Division I linebackers and professional bodybuilders. But that was what Mr. Mitchell was--too good to be true; except, there he was. And now I believe he benched 415, just like he worked construction, read Greek at red lights, and ate jelly donuts. Like many others, I was blessed that Mr. Mitchell's light shone on me, and I will treasure his memory.

    Posted by Carl Fleisher (NNHS '00) July 1, 09 12:15 AM