By Kim Jackson
Special To The Standard
BARNARD — Remembered by family, friends and colleagues as elegant, gracious, kind and funny—a true gentleman—former Rep. Mark Mitchell (D-Barnard) passed away last week after a year-long battle with lung cancer. He was 77.
“Mark was a man of many accomplishments,” said House Speaker Shap Smith. “He was an architect, public servant, father and most of all, a person who lived life to its fullest each and every day. For five years, Mark served his constituents and the State of Vermont with profound purpose and great pride. His warm, engaging, and charming personality made Mark an effective advocate and universally popular among his peers. Mark will be greatly missed.”
Born in London in 1934, Mitchell’s family moved to Ireland during World War II and to the United States after the war. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1956, served in the U.S. Army for two years, and then graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1962. He lived with his wife, Sarah, in their Barnard home, which Mitchell built, and originally they lived in it off-the-grid.
From receiving calls in the middle of the night from friends who needed their plumbing fixed to gracefully quoting Shakespeare, Mitchell would think about things and make them as simple as possible, which required an intellectual mind, according to his wife of 54 years, Sarah.
“He brought me a cup of coffee every morning of our marriage up until the last week or so,” said Sarah Mitchell. “He was always thinking of the other person. He took other kids skiing and made sure they got included.”
Sarah Mitchell reminisced about a family trip to Padanaram, Mass., where he invented a tale of adventure about a seagull for a five-year-old relative from Ireland. Today, that same relative, now 50, shared the memory of the seagull story this past week with Sarah.
“His sense of adventure and shared delight, he offered that to a lot of people and especially to his sons,” she said. “He was an extraordinary father. He stood by them in all kinds of ways.”
Most recently, Mitchell was known for his work in the political arena, serving as the state representative for Barnard, Hartford and Pomfret from 2007 until his resignation mid-term this past May due to his terminal illness. Part of his work as a member of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee included legislative work to reduce Vermont’s carbon footprint and plan for its energy future. His combined mind as an inventor, architect and mechanical thinker provided a unique perspective to many legislative issues.
“There was no one like him in the legislature,” said State Rep. Margaret Cheney of Norwich and the vice chair of the committee. “He was unique. He had not been in politics before and came to it from a lifelong career as an extremely accomplished architect. He had vision and an amazing sense of space. He got excited about things and brought that same energy to issues in our committee. He had a really scientific mind where he could turn things over and consider them from all angles. As a man and as a human being he was, of course, creative, but also thoughtful and respectful, a real gentleman; those old world manners that are so wonderful.”
Cheney, who took legislative office at the same time as Mitchell, would meet Mitchell in Bethel four days a week for their commute to Montpelier. She said the one-on-one time in the car went by quickly because there was always something to talk about, whether it was the latest news from the New York Times or a book he was reading.
“He was extremely well read,” said Cheney. “He loved ideas and intelligent debate and had a wonderful wit and perspective that he brought to things. He was a real humanist. He went into politics because of the public service.”
Prior to his political career, however, Mitchell was best known in the Woodstock area community as an accomplished architect, having crafted the $5 million renovation of the Norman Williams Public Library in 2000 and the renovations at St. James Episcopal Church. His approach to making design simple can be seen in the accessibility renovation including the ramps and walkways in front of the church or in the newly created space at the library within the buildings existing footprint.
“Mark loved libraries and really liked his community and seemed to enjoy this opportunity to work on an historic building and to take it from where it was,” said Phyllis Arata-Meyers, president of the library’s board of trustees at the time of the renovations. “He almost tripled the square footage within the existing footprint of the building. His vision of the space proved to be very functional. It’s beautiful. He was full of energy but he was a person who would consult experts when needed. He had a very good eye on seeing things because he cared.”
According to Jini Hornung, who also served on the board during the renovations and worked with Mitchell on the project, said that the town was adamant about not changing the building’s footprint, which posed a challenge to Mitchell. Originally Mitchell has proposed an addition to the existing structure, but then altered his plans to make it work within the space of the existing building.
“He was very open to our suggestions,” said Hornung. “This was so different from what he had originally designed but he didn’t want to give up on it either. He examined it very carefully, and we were delighted.”
Throughout all of his work, whether as a politician, architect, friend, father, or husband, Mitchell possessed a zest for life that was infectious to anyone around him. His modesty and his understanding of his place in the world was something not many possess.
“He relished every aspect of his legislative adventure and his pleasure in it was infectious,” said State Rep. Alison Clarkson, of Woodstock, who also is a member of St. James. “He brought lots of class and style to the statehouse, an old-school true gentleman. The front stone patio and handicap accessible walkway [at the church]—we use it all the time, and we don’t even think about it. The Norman William Library is his great gift to Woodstock. His work is seamless. He’s one of our treasures, and he will be sorely missed.”
A memorial service for Mitchell will be held at St. James Church on Nov. 19 at 2 p.m., followed by a reception at the Norman Williams Public Library.
“He was an elegant man and then he could turn around and haul you out of a ditch or chop wood,” said his wife, Sarah. “He was a magnificent husband.”
This article first appeared in the November 3rd edition of the Vermont Standard.