Thomas E. Mitchell Sr., a native of Pine Bluff, lived a life devoted to hard work in the name of providing for his family. He had an equally focused determination to provide the same opportunity to other black men and women in his adopted home of Milwaukee, Wis.
Mitchell died Jan. 15 at the age of 78. He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Christine Ervin Mitchell, and their children, Thomas E. Mitchell Jr., Kenneth Mitchell and Carla Mitchell.
Born and raised in Pine Bluff, Mitchell graduated from Merrill High School before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force, where he served between 1954 and 1958, when he was honorably discharged.
Since the ninth grade
Mitchell’s widow recounts that she first met the man who would be her husband when they were both in the ninth grade in Pine Bluff.
“After he was discharged from the Air Force he began looking for work in Wisconsin and in the meantime I was in graduate school at the University of Indiana and we reconnected,” Christine Mitchell said. “He had been trying to get hired by Briggs and Stratton for a while. The day after we were married they called him and offered him a job.”
Briggs and Stratton manufactures engines used in outdoor power equipment including lawn mowers.
“I told him I was his good luck charm,” Christine Mitchell said with a laugh. “I guess he annoyed some of them because he went up to that employment office every day until they hired him.”
Christine Mitchell said her husband’s life was characterized by a strong devotion to his family.
“He worked hard,” she said. “He was always a family man. He provided for his family the very best that he could, sometimes even taking two jobs. We took vacations in the summer including trips to Disney World and to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.”
Thomas Mitchell Sr., the first black foreman and the first black plant superintendent in Briggs and Stratton history, was also committed to helping others attain the same level of success he had won for himself, according to his widow.
“He was the cause of many African-Americans being hired at Briggs and Stratton,” Christine Mitchell said. “Word got around that if you mentioned his name they would get hired. He was always a hardworking person.
“His work record was so good that he became the head of AFL-CIO Local 232,” Christine Mitchell said. “He represented employees in talks with the management of Briggs and Stratton. He was a real advocate for minorities. Due to his efforts scores of people were hired.”
Christine Mitchell said her husband made sure that his family stayed connected to their roots by making an annual journey to Pine Bluff every summer.
“We never missed a summer of coming home,” Mitchell said. “We attended the Merrill High all-school reunion every year.”
Thomas E. Mitchell Jr. remembers his father as a man of strong character who loved his family and supported his children’s aspirations.
“As I said on the day of his funeral you couldn’t ask for a more perfect father,” Thomas Mitchell Jr. said. ” Now of course nobody is perfect but he exemplified everything you would want in a father. I called him ‘Pop.’ ”
“He said he would never steer me wrong in anything he told me and he never did,” Thomas Mitchell Jr. said. “He said that I could take what he said to the bank. He taught me not only to respect myself but to respect others and to treat others the way that I want to be treated. It wasn’t just do as I say, it was do as I do. He was an upstanding individual.”
Thomas Mitchell Jr. said his father served as senior steward and senior finance officer at St. Mark AME Church in Milwaukee.
“He took care of church finances and even though he was not a trustee he took great pains to make sure that the physical structure of the church was up to par,” the younger Mitchell said. “He was instrumental in helping to get an elevator installed for the elderly members of the church.”
Thomas Mitchell Jr. said he was inspired in his professional life as editor of the Milwaukee Community Journal by the work ethos handed down to him by his father.
“He was somebody who believed in hard work and believed that you get what you earn and that you don’t get things handed to you,” the younger Mitchell said. “You have to work for it. Win or lose, you just do your best. He taught us to give it everything that we have. One of his other things was to take your time in whatever you do and that when you do something to give it the best effort you can. I have applied those lessons in my career as a journalist.”
Thomas Mitchell Jr. recounted that his father began his career performing menial tasks but ended it in the top management position in the company.
“He was one of the first African Americans to get hired at Briggs in the late ’50s and at first he had to do menial things like sweep the floor at the plant,” the younger Mitchell said. “The ironic thing is that one summer I worked at the plant and I did the same thing that my father did when he first started: I swept floors.”
A daughter’s calling
Carla Mitchell said her father was always present for his children.
“I’m the only girl so I guess you could say I’m a daddy’s girl,” she said. “He was a very present father and he was very active and supportive of all of us. He made it a point to be at our activities when we were growing up.”
Carla Mitchell attends Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.
“After graduation I will hopefully be assigned to a church,” she said. “I hope to be involved in pastoral care and counseling.”
Carla Mitchell’s mother was thankful that her husband lived long enough to know that his daughter’s future was secure.
“Her dad got to know that she responded to her calling in the ministry before he passed and we are so thankful for that,” Christine Mitchell said.
“He was a good dad; a good father,” Carla Mitchell said. “He took a lot of pride in his family.”