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Jack Mitchell: The man with the yellow Rolls

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ (Week of November 28, 2013)
Photo of Jack Mitchell.

Jack Mitchell was never short on nerve. Courageous in his military service and committed to civic involvement, he didn’t shy away from making his presence known, from his political opinions to his loud pants to the yellow Rolls Royce he drove around town.

What he wanted known, though, was that he gave – and so should everyone else. Mitchell’s cheerleading for philanthropy in Vero started a roar that never quieted down.

For all the funds he donated to the Visiting Nurse Association Hospice of the Treasure Coast, enough to build one resident and garden room of the 12-bed facility, Jack himself only spent one day there, his last. He died Nov. 18 at the age of 91.

“He was not one of those people that say ‘I’m ready to die.’ He was ready to get better,” said Sally Mitchell, his youngest daughter.

“He was a military man. You weren’t allowed to give up. That just permeated his whole entire life. You just keep right on trying.”

As an Air Force colonel, Mitchell flew presidents, congressmen and diplomats around the world. But there was no one he was more bowled over by than his late wife, Mary, his high school sweetheart. As sure as he was about everything he did, his marriage had his rock-solid vote of confidence.

When he came home to his family, Jack Mitchell was the dad in the neighborhood that gathered all the kids up for a game of football in the street – including his own little girl, dressed up in a Redskins uniform he bought for her.

Mitchell fancied himself a gourmet cook. So he found some investors and opened a restaurant. Forty-one, as it was called, after its street address on Royal Palm Pointe, turned out to be one of the most successful Vero dining spots in its era. Mitchell was deeply involved, down to correcting his French chef’s technique.

When he lost his adored grown son to cancer, he showed his thanks to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa for prolonging his life by undertaking a massive effort to help support it financially. It was a great awakening of his philanthropic inclinations and it soon extended to numerous Vero institutions, including most significantly VNA Hospice of the Treasure Coast.

“Jack Mitchell is an institution,” said Carol Kanarek, chairman of VNA Hospice Foundation. She knew Mitchell from her banking days when he was putting together Forty-one. She worked closely with him during his tenure on the board of the VNA Hospice Foundation, and softened him up with sugar cookies from Cravings.

“He was the Colonel. He’d ask the direct questions – what were we doing and why were we doing this. He was a spot-on guy,” she said.  “He would tell people how important philanthropy was to him. That became his motto and he instilled that in other people.”

He deeply believed that Vero Beach was an extraordinary place, warranting the care of a prized botanical garden. And all its residents needed to chip in with the weeding: civic duty called Mitchell loudly.

Mitchell lived in John’s Island nearly from its inception. Well into his 80s, Mitchell worked for John’s Island Real Estate Company. “They called him the Energizer Bunny,” said his daughter Sally.

Politically, though, Mitchell examined issues without neighborhood bias. “He looked beyond the gates of John’s Island for the good of the whole town,” said Tom Cadden, Indian River Shores council member and a former mayor.

It was Cadden who proposed re-naming a street for Mitchell in March 2012.

All agree that suited Mitchell to a T.

“He liked to be noticed,” said Sally.

Born in Fairfield, CT, Mitchell went to a military academy in St. Petersburg. The next year, 1942, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and became an instrument flight instructor.

He married his high school sweetheart on a five-day leave at Christmas, 1943. A year after the war ended, he briefly took a job flying for TWA, then rejoined what is now the U.S. Air Force. Stationed in Hawaii with his young family, war broke out in Korea, and Mitchell flew supplies and forces in the air lift to South Korea.

A year later he was selected to fly VIPs in the precursor to Air Force One. From Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower to foreign dignitaries, he ferried high-profile passengers around the globe for five years.

Then Mitchell’s service turned to war again, this time Vietnam. He was assigned to a tactical reconnaissance wing in Thailand. In a year, he flew 141 combat missions.

As a father, he made the most of his time at home – and there were many homes, as the family followed Jack in his many transfers. Sally Mitchell missed her dad when he was away; a tomboy, she always looked forward to his return. “He was always willing to go buy a new football,” she says.

The following year, at age 50, he decided to retire. Early in their marriage, he and Mary had invested in a piece of property in Queen’s Cove on North Hutchinson Island. They headed back to see how it had fared and on their way, drove through Vero Beach.

That was all it took.

They moved to town in 1973. Sally, now a veterinary radiologist, enrolled in the public high school, and Mary set about managing the Ambassador House apartment complex the couple bought on Tulip Lane.

They had enough money to retire, said Sally, but not a whole lot more. Jack went looking for work in the newly conceived John’s Island, and found a job as general manager for the only builder there. They bought the first of their two homes there in 1974.

In a community that prizes its understated taste, Mitchell bloomed like a big hibiscus. His civic-mindedness drove him to attend nearly every town council meeting, and he encouraged people to become involved and to run for office.

In February, though, Mitchell wanted to keep someone off the town council, on the grounds that the candidate was too old – 90, the same age as Mitchell. People like “the Pope and me” ought to make way for younger folks, he said.

There were times when he took a stand on issues that had the good of the town in mind more than the good of John’s Island.  And he wanted more options for fine dining than the clubs of the gated communities.

“The only options were the country clubs and he thought that was just not right,” said Sally. “There needed to another place to get away from the clubs.”

So he pulled together a few investors and in 1979 plunged into the restaurant business, buying a pub-like restaurant on Royal Palm Pointe.

Frank Lincoln, the interior designer of the day who had hired Mary Mitchell as an assistant, redid the interior. The late Yannick Martin became the chef; his wife Valerie worked the front of the house.

“That was an interesting relationship,” said Sally. “He was always trying to tell Yannick how to make his sauces.”

The restaurant was a huge success. But it was exhausting work for the Mitchells and in 1990, they sold it. Today, it is the Dockside Inn.

Mary Mitchell died in April 2010. “He was devastated,” daughter Sally says.

“They shared everything,” said daughter Marja Morris, who lives in Alabama.

“They were best friends and always wanted to be together,” said Sally. “I don’t think there was a person on the planet who had anything bad to say about my mother. She was incredibly patient – she had to be to live with my dad for 67 years. He’s Mr. In Charge and you’ve got to be able to deal with that on a day-to-day basis.”

In charge or not, Mitchell handled the loss of such remarkable companionship with his classic military style, said Sally. “He picked himself up by his bootstraps and for the first couple years after her death he was active and involved and keeping himself busy. But age just started catching up with him. When he was less able to get out and do things, it became so much lonelier for him.”

A year after Mary’s death, Mitchell hired Tom Nesby, 50, to come help out. The two clicked and their relationship became a great friendship. They watched sports together over chips and salsa and a few non-alcoholic beers. Just a week before his death, they were high-fiving over an Eagles win, Nesby recalled sadly last Saturday, joining family members who were poring through photographs for Mitchell’s memorial service Monday.

The colonel who once flew over the Ho Chi Minh trail, searching for the Viet Cong, at the end of his life trained his binoculars on the lagoon, looking for birds and dolphins, teaching Nesby the names of the wildlife.

One frequent stop on their trips around town was the house Sally was building in Central Beach. Jack Mitchell had to check up on the crew. “Never mind that this is a 56-year-old woman building her own house. He’s got to tell everybody how to do it,” said Sally, the baby of the family.

Her sister Marja, a retired staffer with the White House Visitors Office, is ten years her senior. Their brother John Mitchell Jr., died in 1989 of pancreatic cancer at age 40. John Jr. flew F4 fighters in the Air Force, then was a captain with American Airlines.

“My parents were changed forever” by his death, said Sally. “It’s when they became involved in philanthropy.” They endowed a chair in Moffitt’s blood and marrow transplant program and raised thousands of dollars for research and clinical programs. On the center’s board for 20 years, Mitchell invited Moffitt representatives to speak at the “five o’clock talks” at John’s Island. “He was always trying to get the word out on what a great cancer center it was.”

That involvement soon led to a cause close to home, VNA Hospice of the Treasure Coast, in 1990. By 1994 Mitchell was on the board of the foundation. His support continued to the end of his life – and beyond. From their initial contribution, described by the VNA as “astounding,” the Mitchells went on to include donate significant sums, including leaving VNA in their estate.

The Mitchells’ philanthropy extended well beyond VNA to at least a dozen Vero causes.

When the county moved to close the Gifford Aquatic Center for the fall and winter months, Mitchell personally intervened. “In five to eight years, these children will be defending our security,“ he told the commissioners. “I want them to have every convenience and every possibility for their future, because they’re going to be out there protecting you and protecting me.” The commission reopened the pool.

As for his Rolls, a 1979 Silver Shadow, he Velcro-ed a  Grey Poupon mustard jar to the dashboard so he could stage a reenactment of the 1980s TV commercial where one Rolls driver asks another if he has any of the European-style mustard.

“He bought it in the ‘80s from an elderly lady in Palm Beach. It became this iconic car around Vero,” said Sally. “He would lend it out for weddings. And he was very reluctant to send it to my niece last year.” When the time came for Sally to drive the car up to meet the semi and car carrier on A-1-A, who should pull up but her dad and Nesby. “And of course he had to tell everyone what to do.”