This was posted in the Daily Register 11/1/2010.
As a school administrator, Elmer Mitchell encouraged students to have good attendance.
He practiced what he preached.
At age 84, Mitchell is continuing his 50-year streak of perfect attendance for the Portage Area Kiwanis Club. Mitchell has attended a meeting almost every week, totaling more than 2,000 times.
On Oct. 21, the Portage Area Kiwanis Club celebrated Mitchell’s contribution in a heartfelt – and sometimes tearful – award ceremony at Quinn’s Hitching Post Saloon and Eatery in Portage. The surprise came at the end of the meeting when Mitchell’s longtime friend and mentee Jim Burmeister, lieutenant governor of the local Kiwanis Club, put a medallion over Mitchell’s neck that has only been given to 60 other Kiwanis members.
The Van Kleef Fellowship is named for former Kiwanis international president Case Van Kleef. The award is given when a local club donates $1,000 to a Kiwanis college scholarship endowment. The Portage Area Kiwanis Club scrapped together the money for the award and scholarship without the knowledge of Mitchell, who’s face was full of surprise during the presentation.
“Your whole life has been dedicated to kids,” Burmeister said. “Elmer, you are my hero, and the world is a better place because Elmer Mitchell is in it.”
For Mitchell, one of six children growing up on his Cazenovia farm, being around children and helping children has always been a “joy” and the focus of his life.
“There’s a certain communication that takes place,” he said. “It just makes you blossom.”
And since 1959, Mitchell has never stopped blossoming. After receiving his undergraduate teaching degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Mitchell took $2,250 a year to teach 25 students in his one-room school in Cassell Prairie.
Despite teaching kindergarten through eighth grade at the same time and in the same close quarters, Mitchell said that position was his most rewarding and favorite teaching job.
After seven years in his rural school room, and with a master’s degree from Winona State University in Minnesota, Mitchell took a job as an administrator in the Portage Community School District.
And like how a fish grows to the size of its tank, Mitchell blossomed into one of the area’s educational and volunteering icons.
Somehow, along with his full-time work weeks, he helped raise a family, attended extracurricular events at each of the elementary schools (he went to almost every Christmas pageant), planed weeklong camping trips for students and found ways to integrate children from special education classes into regular classroom settings when possible.
All while doing this, he also went to weekly Kiwanis Club meetings. He was president, secretary and the driving force behind the club’s “Special Day for Special Kids.” For almost 30 years, Mitchell organized an event each year for children with mental and physical disabilities. He raised funds, recruited chaperones and secured food donations.
In 50 years, Elmer “didn’t miss much” of the fundraising opportunities for the club, said Lu Mitchell, a lifelong educator and Elmer’s wife of 50 years. “Any extra program (Kiwanis) had, Elmer would be there.”
When asked what Elmer’s greatest accomplishment is, he said it was the opportunity to connect with so many children.
“It was so fantastic,” he said.
“To this day people will still come up to him and refer to him (like a teacher) as Mr. Mitchell,” Lu Mitchell said.
Crash, cane, comeback
On a Sunday afternoon in June 2008, Mitchell was overtaken by a common Wisconsin urge: He needed to have a strawberry malt.
He fired up his red minivan and took a ride from his home the west side of Portage to Culver’s to get his fix.
On his way home with the malt in tow, he crossed the intersection of West Collins Street and New Pinery Road when a drunken driver ran a red light, smashing into the passenger side of the van, totaling both cars.
Pictures of the wreck show a massive crater in the side of the van, crushed glass, exposed wiring and strawberry malt flung against the dashboard and the windshield.
But by 4 a.m. the next morning, Mitchell said doctors gave him “every kind of X-ray imaginable” and released him with no broken bones, but massive bruises on his arms, legs and chest where the seat belt constricted upon impact.
“I think he was so relaxed thinking about getting home and eating his strawberry malt that he …” started Lu.
“Rolled with the bounces,” said Elmer, finishing her sentence.
Mitchell swore he’d never drive again, and he hasn’t, but even during the next 11 weeks of physical therapy as some Alzheimer’s symptoms started emerging, Mitchell still went to Kiwanis Club meetings.
That Christmas, just like the 30 previous, Mitchell was helping Kiwanis members distribute donated gifts for disadvantaged children. The only difference was the imprint his new cane made in the snow as he carried the presents. Mr. Mitchell was back, and he was there to stay.
Honoring their teacher
At the Oct. 21 celebration, three generations of Mitchell’s students gathered around him. There were those he taught, those he administered for, and those who received scholarships through his work with the Kiwanis Club.
One of those, Jim Burmeister, who was in grade school while Mitchell was administrator, put the medal around Mitchell’s neck and handed him a plaque with the Van Kleef award.
After minutes of raucous applause, Mitchell’s daughter Jean Mitchell-Fimreite, stood up and addressed her father’s students, colleagues and friends.
“What I’ve heard him say in the last few years, is how proud he is of some of you,” she said, starting to cry. “Dad isn’t a Kiwanis on Wednesdays, he’s lived like a Kiwanis his whole life.”
Then, someone handed Mitchell a cell phone. On the other end was Cass Van Kleef, the club’s former international president and the person for whom the award was named.
The crowd grew silent and the phone’s speaker phone crackled:
“You take care and you do your best,” Van Kleef said. “For doing the right thing people will love and respect you forever.”