Remembering Jack MitchellProfessor of Biology 1931-1996
It was a beautiful sunny day in early May 1975 when I first met Jack Mitchell. At that time I was the department chairman and Jack had come down from Syracuse to talk to me, over lunch, about the developmental biology position which had become vacant in our department late in the academic year. Who really understands the chemistry that develops between two individuals. Perhaps it was the haircut, perhaps the easy laugh, or maybe his love of sports as much as his philosophy of teaching, but 60 minutes was about all it took to convince me that I was in the presence of someone special, and long before coffee was served I knew I had found my candidate. During the almost 21 years since, I've often said the event which gave me the greatest satisfaction during my years as chairman was getting Jack Mitchell to come to Colgate.
As anyone who met him knew instantly, he liked people. One felt immediately comfortable in his presence and one always knew exactly where you stood with him. He never pulled his punches, he called them the way he saw them, and what you saw was what you got. You could disagree with his position but you were never in doubt as to what his position was.
Jack loved students and treated them as if they were his own kids, and they responded in kind. He supported them both in the classroom and out, took immense pride in their accomplishments, celebrated with them in victory, suffered with them in defeat, set high standards and refused to accept anything from them but their very best. It was never a mystery to me why he had the largest advising load of anyone in the department.
He was fond of reminding his students that the overwhelming majority of them had come to Colgate with records of lofty achievement and he would then challenge them to live up to the promise of those records. He put his soul into his courses and expected students to return the favor. Inflating grades was not Jack Mitchell's style. What a student earned is what he got, and he delighted in his reputation as one who never graded on a curve. The return of the first exam in one of his courses was always a major event. A first-time student who may have just received his or her lowest mark ever, and who was now looking for a miracle, would surely inquire, "Have these grades been curved?" To which Jack would reply in somber tones, "I do not curve." From the perspective of a modern pre-medical student whose entire academic career up to this point may have been unblemished by any grade lower than a B, this dreadful pronouncement conjured up visions of med school rejection letters and never failed to send shudders through the room. It would make a great epitaph, wouldn't it, Jack often said: "Here lies Jack Mitchell, he didn't curve."
His personality, his knowledge of all facets of university life and his position as chairman of the Health Sciences Advisory Committee made him a sought-after contact when prospective students were touring campus. As much as he enjoyed interacting with these students, parents who implied that it was who you know and not what you know that was going to get their son or daughter into medical school genuinely irked him. "What are you going to do to get my son or daughter into med school," such a parent might demand. No one ever asked that question twice.
As a bird is at its best while in the air, so too was the campus Jack's natural element. He was happy here, at home among all the things he cherished: his teaching, sports of all kinds, the visual arts, music, the theater, interacting with students, colleagues and alumni, even the occasional committee assignment. It was with some poignancy, therefore, that I sat one night a few weeks ago reflecting on Jack's ordeal while listening to an old 78 rpm recording of some long forgotten chorus singing that quintessential college song, Gaudeamus Igitur. The recording is one of the oldest I own, the quality is certainly nothing to write home about and the label is almost illegible, but the music and the words have always touched me, evoking as they do memories of youth and friendship, of loyalty and good cheer.
"Raise we then, the joyous shout:/ Life to Alma Mater!/ Life to each Professor here,/Life to all our comrades dear,/ May they leave us never,/ May they leave us never."
Jack would have drunk to that.