July 13, 2010
Just after the Great Depression ravaged Oklahoma, a young sharecropper's son determined he needed to escape the Sooner State. So 14-year-old Bill Mitchell saved $3 and ran away. He spent a day walking from rural Chandler to Bethany, and then hitched rides to Phoenix, Ariz. He purchased a loaf of bread in the morning and divided it into thirds - and that made his three meals for the day.
Arriving in Arizona, he got a job at a grocery store. But soon he determined it was time to go home. He saved up $3, and he hitched rides back to central Oklahoma. However, his journeys across the country and around the world were far from over.
Mitchell completed school and earned a bachelor's degree at Oklahoma City University. An avid reader, he read everything he could get his hands on. Meanwhile, the United States was embroiled in the Korean War. Mitchell knew if he was enrolled in a university full time and making progress toward a degree, he would not be drafted.
"I thought I needed to go somewhere that had an active culture and history," he recalled. So he and his wife, Dorthy, packed everything they had into their '46 Ford and went to Boston, not knowing the city or anyone there. Mitchell enrolled at Boston University to pursue his master's degree with the intention of paying while he studied and finishing his degree in one year "because I knew the draft was nipping at my heels," he said. He did fairly well in his coursework but could not finish the final exam in the allotted time.
"I did not pass the master's degree exam in 1953, so I went home with my tail between my legs," he said."I figured I had reached my full potential."
Mitchell was drafted into military service, and he served two years in Korea and Japan, taking a trunk-load of books with him to the Orient.
After completing his assignment, he returned to Oklahoma once again and taught for two years at U.S. Grant High School in Oklahoma City. He began teaching in 1955, and taught the first senior class at the school - the entire senior class - teaching three sections of senior English and two sections of sophomore English.
"I enjoyed teaching - and it surprised me," he said. "I didn't want to be an English teacher. I knew a few, and they were dull."
Following his second year of teaching, he said he "starved out," earning an annual salary of only $2,700, with a wife, a child, and another child on the way. He returned to Boston to re-take his master's degree exam before his eligibility expired. His wife's sister moved into their home to help, during his absence, with his wife's pregnancy. The day before he took the exam, he received a telegram which read, "Your wife and son are doing fine." He had missed the baby's birth.
"This upset me, and I was very distracted," Mitchell said. "I took a long walk and came to a chapel. I sat down and talked to the Lord. I told Him if I passed the exam, I would use my degree to further His kingdom."
Mitchell passed the exam.
To provide for his family between teaching and re-taking the exam, he began selling books and encyclopedias. He said he was making good money for the first time in his life. He became a manager and trainer for the company, resulting in more income.He asked Boston University to send his transcript to the University of Oklahoma, which approached him about a job - but the sales company said he needed to fulfill his commitment to them.
"I was very good, and I became hardened," he said. "I could sell to anyone. I learned how to lie without really lying."
He started selling vending machines for $80 each in 1958. He told people the company would stock the machines with hot nuts; his customers would provide the stock.
"I couldn't believe it - everybody bought," he said.
He was making more money than ever. One day, whipping down a north Texas highway in a '47 Ford with 90 horsepower, he hit a jackrabbit which went right through his grill and pushed the fan into the radiator. While the car was repaired, he waited in a café where he saw a small tabletop vending machine stocked with nuts. It was the first time he had seen the contraption he had been selling.
"I thought, ‘I'm a con artist, and I'm a very good con artist,'" he recalled.
He called the principal at U.S. Grant and asked if he could possibly use a second-hand English teacher. Living in Del City, late August 1958, he wondered how to feed his family: his wife and his two children, with another one on the way. On a Sunday night, he received a phone call from Dr. James Ralph Scales, a vice president at Oklahoma Baptist University, who said, "I'd like to talk to you about a teaching position at OBU."
Following a Monday morning meeting on Bison Hill with Scales, Mitchell went next door and shook hands with OBU President John Wesley Raley. By the end of the week, he was in faculty meetings, and the next week he was teaching material new to him. ("But I was a quick learner," he added.)
Mitchell said he was impressed with the campus, and impressed with the fellow faculty. But it was the students who most impressed the young professor. In a classroom in Shawnee Hall, filled with 70 students, he said when he began class, everyone hushed their chatting, pulled out a notebook and listened.
"I realized I needed to be prepared to deserve such attention," he said.
It was years before Mitchell discovered what lead to the Sunday night phone call from Scales. Mitchell was a member of the First Baptist Church of Midwest City. The pastor's wife was the sister of Eunice Short. Mitchell had given a devotional in Sunday School while Eunice was visiting, and she suggested Scales consider him for a teaching position.
That coincided with another endorsement.
Lena Washacheck Camel had been entertaining her sister, Josie Washacheck, who was an English professor at OBU. Josie had differences with the University, so she took a position late in the summer at another college. She told Lena, "The only thing I regret is leaving OBU in a lurch this late in August. Tell them about my former student, Bill Mitchell."
The very same day Eunice Short recommended to Scales that he hire Bill Mitchell, Lena Washacheck Camel gave him the same suggestion. Years later, in retrospect, Mitchell told Scales, "Wasn't I lucky?" to which Scales replied, "I would have called it providential."
"That was the first time I understood what had happened to me," Mitchell said. "I wanted to teach here the rest of my life. There was something going on here I wanted to be a part of. I think I know now what it means: all the coincidences that happen create a pattern, and you realize it was never coincidence at all."
Mitchell taught at OBU for the remainder of his career. His three children completed degrees at OBU: Michael earned a degree in history and political science in 1978; Daniel earned a degree in music composition in 1979; and Janet earned a degree in voice in 1980. They all went on to earn master's degrees.
For 20 years, Mitchell moonlighted at OBU, taking on whatever extra "chores" he could find to add a small financial cushion. Once he got a bit of a margin, he began to give a little back to OBU, about $1,000 a year until he retired in 1996. By that time, he was working on the Mitchell English Scholarship to encourage creative writing. At his retirement dinner, attendees also contributed to the scholarship, giving it a boost.
After his wife, Dorthy, died, and Mitchell was ordained to the ministry, he felt like he should give a little more to OBU. He and his second wife, Mae, his brother, Tom, and sister-in-law Kathleen each gave $2,500 toward the Thomas W. and Elizabeth Mitchell Memorial Endowment Scholarship, in memory of his parents. The scholarship helps any upperclassman "of greatest need," in honor of his parents' strong work ethic.
The Mitchells also established charitable gift annuities, which allow them to contribute to the University from rental properties while receiving a little bit in return each year.
"I really did mean what I said to the Lord at Boston University," Mitchell said. "I was profoundly impressed, almost from the day I got here, with what was happening at OBU. My roots are so deep in this place, if I left, I would have to leave half of me here.
"If you just keep open and watch what comes, things will eventually come to you," he said. "That's what happened at OBU. It was a gift, a blessing."