Penobscot educator Theodore Mitchell dies
PENOBSCOT NATION, INDIAN ISLAND – The Penobscot community has lost a beloved elder and educator with the death of Dr. Theodore N. Mitchell Feb. 8.
Mitchell was born Nov. 20, 1919, the son of the late Theodore Bear and Mildred McKenney Mitchell.
He spent his whole life on Indian Island where he and his wife of 64 years, the late Eleanor Mary (Dana) Mitchell, worked at whatever jobs they could find to raise their 13 children, “and never once asked for or received assistance from the state welfare Indian agent,” Mitchell’s family said in an obituary.
Mitchell is survived by 13 children, Sandra (Mitchell) Broschard and her husband, Ralph, of Somers Point, N.J., T. Dana Mitchell of Indian Island, Eugene J. Mitchell of Indian Island, Stephen E. Mitchell and his wife, Debbie, of Chepachet, R.I., Nancy J. Mitchell of Indian Island, Rick Mitchell of Bangor, Marie Mitchell, Elaine (Mitchell) Vermette and her husband, Mike, Maryellen (Mitchell) Sockabasin and her husband, Patrick, and Wayne T. Mitchell, all of Indian Island, Kevin S. Mitchell of West Palm Beach, Fla., Natalie S. Michelle of Winterport and Carl G. Mitchell and his wife, Yvonne, of Bangor. He is also survived by a sister, Hilda (Mitchell) Gray of Indian Island; a brother, Gerry N. Mitchell of Alabama; 34 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren, as well as more than 70 nieces and nephews.
In addition to his wife, Mitchell was pre-deceased by a son, Howard D. Mitchell; his parents, two sisters, Adelyn and Thelma; and five brothers, Lawrence, Richard, John, Warren and Matthew, all of Indian Island.
“My father was a story teller,” said his son Wayne Mitchell, who represents the Penobscot Nation in the state legislature. “We used to love sitting down and getting him to talk and listening to him tell stories about when he was young, about the people he knew, and the tribe. He had a wide knowledge about the people and the old ways, who lived where, and who was related to who; he knew everybody.”
Mitchell had a lifelong devotion to education and, as his children grew up and left home, he took university courses at night at the University of Maine, Orono, while he continued working full-time during the day in construction.
After graduation he taught in the university’s anthropology department and spent the next 40 years fighting for and supporting American Indian students.
Mitchell was instrumental in founding the university’s Wabanaki Center, which focuses on Maine’s four indigenous tribes, the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet, and the Micmac. Along with the center, the university established an accredited Native American Studies program to serve not only the needs of Native American students, but also to educate the non-Native public of the significant and innumerable contributions Native Americans have made in Maine and the country.
“He created the Wabanaki Center after years of fighting for it. They had started the Franco American Center, the Black Studies Program, the Women’s Studies program and he said, ‘You’re doing all these things, what about studies of the Native people indigenous to the state?’” Wayne said.
As a result of his efforts, more than 360 students from the Wabanaki tribes in Maine have received a post-secondary education with many continuing to advanced degrees in medicine, law, science, education, mathematics and engineering.
“His support of his students never wavered. The many Native American students who knew my father will attest to his dogged pursuit for them to succeed academically and he was very proud of them when they fulfilled their academic goals,” Wayne said.
Mitchell received numerous awards including the Steve Gould Award for Outstanding and Distinguished Service to the University of Maine and its Ideals in 1993; the Professional Employees Advisory Council Award for Distinguished Community Service in 1986; the Dexter Huntoon Distinguished Fellow Award for Outstanding Teaching, Knowledge, Passion and Concern for Humanity in 1989; the FAME Distinguished Service Award in Higher Education for Native Americans in 1994; the Jefferson Award for Distinguished Public Service in 1997; the title of director emeritus at the Wabanaki Center in 1999; the Houlton Band of Maliseets Distinguished Service Award in 1999; the Penobscot Nation Distinguished Service Award for the Support of and Dedication to Native American Students; the Native American Student Alumni Distinguished Service Award for support of Native American Students in 2004.
Mitchell was a consultant and advisor to at least a dozen different state universities and tribal colleges around the country that established American Indian Studies programs. He served on the National Indian Education Advisory Board.
Although Mitchell retired at 79, he was still called upon to provide advice, Wayne said.
“A lot of people saw him as a great resource and came and visited him to pick his brain. He was always so happy when someone succeeded.”
He said his father died peacefully, surrounded by family members and even got to see his newest great-grand daughter and stroke her cheek before he passed. He will be greatly missed.
“I live right next door to his house and it’s black all the time now. For 80 years there were lights on at that house, and now there are no lights.”