Remembering J. T. W. Mitchell

By Henry H. Mitchell

Mary and Trubie Mitchell

Mary and Trubie Mitchell in their 58th wedding anniversary portrait in May 1994.

Trubie Mitchell had a “connection with the land” of which a '60s flower child could only dream. Having grown up among the rocky hills and fertile valleys of Bland County, Virginia, he knew both bounty and scarcity, and the vicissitudes of nature. Deeply familiar and well-versed in soil types (and agronomy in general), and plant and animal identification and husbandry, he had a natural sense of what could be gained from careful stewardship of a parcel of land.

Raised in a pre-industrial society, and in a somewhat isolated location, but in a family and community fascinated with agricultural technology, in many ways he, throughout his life, bridged the gap between the frontier and the new and high-tech.

At fourteen years old, he was given his first corn crop to raise. After selling it, and having a $100 profit, he brought down upon himself the disapproval of his parents by purchasing a victrola (an Aeolian-Vocalian brand) from his mother's first cousin, itinerant salesman and Methodist preacher John Watson Helvey. The next year the Rev. Helvey returned at the appropriate time for Trubie to invest his second corn crop in a Crosley radio, again to his parents' consternation. Trubie later said that was strike two in his parents' eyes, and strike three happened when he later got the Rev. Helvey's daughter for a wife!

Trubie, Flossie, and Lula Mitchell

Trubie Mitchell with his sisters Flossie and Lula, around 1910.

Schooled only sporadically, a few weeks between Christmas and Ground Hog's Day, for a few years, in a one-room school supervised by classical schoolmaster, he nevertheless managed to go to a local vocational high school for three years, to a college prep final year in the city of Radford, Virginia, and then on to college at Emory and Henry, where he worked his way through school, teaching, barbering, serving as “house steward” for his future parents-in-law, and doing electrical and plumbing work.

As a teenager, he fell ill to a severe infection and abscess of his hip, which left him near death for months. Finally he recovered, but lost the use of his hip. His new partial handicap led him to re-evaluate his role as the sole son of a farming family and prospective heir of a large farming operation. Realizing he could no longer perform the heavy manual labor expected of him, he — against his parents' wishes — left the farm and went to college at Emory and Henry.

That is where he met his second cousin Mary Helvey. Late in life he recalled that for several years he looked around and wished he could find “a girl like Mary to marry.” Warned by his parents not to marry a relative, he said he noticed that even in the Bible some of the patriarchs chose cousins as spouses, so after much prayerful consideration (several years passed) he decided to ignore the warnings, and parental disapproval.

Henry, Joan, John, Mary, and Trubie Mitchell

Christmas 1954: Henry, Joan, John, Mary, and Trubie Mitchell.

But it was Mary who, in effect, “popped the question” to then-32-year-old Trubie. In 1936 she had gathered enough money to attend an Art Institute of Chicago - sponsored summer art course at Saugatuck on Lake Michigan, and was telling Trubie about the prospective joys of spending a few weeks camping and possibly fishing on the shores of the lake. He said, “I wish I could come along, too.” To which she replied, “You can … ” Astonished, he repeated “I can?!” And she finished by saying “ … if you marry me!” The deal was done. And a good deal it was. For over 65 years.

Back to Trubie's hip disability: he didn't let it keep him from playing first base on the Emory and Henry baseball team. His teammates called him “Hoppy” because of his stiff-hipped lope. He had helped rebuild his strength with push-ups. Uncounted thousands of push-ups, he later admitted. His large-boned frame became massively muscled in the arms and upper torso, and throughout his life he was capable of extraordinary feats of strength. Even in his last two years he amazed his nurses with his ability to lift himself in and out of bed using an overhead bar. Henry recalls seeing him at 65 years of age bench-press a rear axle while sliding on his back on the grass beneath a 1954 Chrysler, then while still lying on the ground on his back tossing the axle aside.

Once, while proudly sitting with children and grandchildren in the service at Watson Memorial United Methodist Church in Chatham, Trubie noted that little grandson Scott Keith was getting a little boisterous for the staid congregation, so he smilingly invited Scott to sit beside him. Scott grew very, very quiet all of a sudden. A nearby friend noted that Trubie had placed his massive right thumb and forefinger “gently” around little Scott's knee!

Many years earlier, Trubie had been conducting an evening class for ex-GI's at Spring Garden, Virginia, when a neighborhood gentleman, well-known to all, crashed the class in an inebriated condition, brandishing a loaded firearm while angrily threatening Trubie and the students. Witnesses recall that Trubie cheerfully welcomed him to the class, quickly extended his left hand in a “handshake,” announcing to the class “Meet my good friend,” calling him by name. The man crumpled in agony from the “handshake,” dropping his weapon harmlessly to the floor. The incident was over.

In 1967, Trubie, Mary, and Henry were involved in a traumatic automobile accident which almost ended Trubie's life. But just as in his teen years, he fought back with tenacity, and by God's grace lived with miraculous strength and energy for another 34 years.

Trubie with Joan and John

April 7, 1941: Trubie with four-month-old Joan and seventeen-month-old John.

Trubie had chosen teaching as a profession, and told his family that he considered himself as having something of a “technical missionary” assignment: to make life in the Pittsylvania County community where the Mitchell family lived for almost forty years as full and satisfying as possible, through effort and ingenuity, rather than merely the expenditure of money.

And he lived his own life in that manner. He had several opportunities to "better" himself career-wise, but he refused to deviate from his life as a mentor, and in a small rural community.

As a teacher and self-learner himself, he spoke and practiced the philosophy of open-ended teaching and learning. Knowledge of a subject was never complete. Students should be allowed to pursue the subject as far as they could as fast as they could. Every written test could be answered simply, or in as much complexity as the student could muster. His curriculum was straight-line, not spiral (the more typical form of today's graded instruction), and many of his students learned to excel in subjects and fields they never imagined possible, whether in vocational or academic areas, or in baseball or basketball.

He and Mary often looked longingly back from the Piedmont of Virginia to the familiar mountains from whence they had come, but not until health considerations constrained them to seek the security of supervision by daughter and son-in-law Joan and Jim Keith in Bristol, Tennessee, did they allow themselves the luxury of “returning home.”

Mary and Trubie were married during the lean days of the Great Depression, and their children Joan and John were born during those hard years. They struggled together to provide a nurturing home and higher education for their children. Their third child Henry was born after World War II, giving them the later-life experience of raising a baby-boomer in the age of the Beatles and beyond!

Esca and Minnie Mitchell, with daughter Lula and son Trubie

One-year-old Trubie is seen with his sister Lula and parents Esca and Minnie Mitchell, in 1905.

Trubie's parents provided a spiritual foundation for his early life. His father Esca Mitchell was a lay preacher in Bland County, who ministered from church to church as invited, plus held Sunday afternoon services for the community from his own front porch in good weather. Trubie's mother Minnie was a traditional Lutheran, who took responsibility for the children's church life. Trubie reported that it was his mother who gathered up the children and took them to a remarkable event in Bluefield — a revival conducted by Billy Sunday. It was at that revival that Trubie gave his life to Jesus, a commitment which followed him the rest of his life.

An anecdote which Trubie told and laughed over many times in recent years involves the Bland County church he had attended in his youth:

Trubie and Mary stopped in their Winnebago just a few years ago to visit the old church of his childhood, where his parents are buried. After a picnic for just the two of them, they were walking the grounds when they were approached by a startled and frightened elderly neighborhood lady, who mistook him for the ghost of his father! Mary tried to reassure her that no, this was not Esca Mitchell, this is Trubie! But the lady fired back, “No, this isn't Trubie Mitchell. I know Trubie Mitchell, and he's a GOOD-looking man!”

Timothy Mitchell

Trubie's grandfather, former photographer and Confederate cavalryman Timothy Mitchell, around 1915.

During Trubie's childhood, he seems to have been significantly influenced by his grandfather Timothy Mitchell, a Confederate cavalryman, one of southwest Virginia's pre-Civil War studio photographers, and also a farmer and schoolteacher.

Timothy spent a significant portion of his last years in Trubie's family's household — in fact, he was a business partner in the operation of the family farm now owned by Trubie's nephew Joe Carr and his wife Doris.

Trubie spoke of hearing his grandfather talk with his friends of their days as Civil War soldiers — and of being present when many of the elder generation discussed family and community matters of long ago. Early on, Trubie began to keep notebooks of family history.

Those notes provide the nucleus of the far-ranging research into Mitchell and Helvey family history accomplished by Trubie's son John. Trubie's notes and anecdotes also have significantly contributed to his daughter- in-law Patricia's writing about the history of Southern foodways.

Trubie also gleaned from his grandfather Timothy a fascination with photography. In the very early days of photography, prior to the Civil War, Timothy had operated a photography studio in Christiansburg. Following Timothy's example, Trubie became skilled in the operation of cameras and the use of darkrooms. Almost every family or community event attended by Trubie was also photographed by Trubie.

As with most of his remarkable array of skills, Trubie considered photography not a vocation but one more tool with which to nurture and create interconnections for family, church, and community. He saw to it that all three of his children had their own cameras and knew how to use them. And it became second nature to all three of them.

Henry reports that as a teenager he became resentful of the ever-present camera (and even moreso of having to work in the darkroom while his friends played baseball — not that Trubie did not also take time to individually coach Henry in the finer points of baseball), and tried to divest himself of the shutterbug habit as a young adult. But Henry's attempt utterly failed, and he has in one way or another been a professional photographer for over 25 years.

Trubie and David Mitchell, 1985

Trubie playing his mother Minnie Mitchell's accordion is partially visible at right, sharing a footrest with grandson Scott Keith “on sax” at left, Christmas 1974. Behind Scott is Henry Mitchell's father-in-law John Beaver.

Trubie was drawn to music in the legendary days of local mountain music, before radio and recordings homogenized and standardized the way music is “supposed to be.” As a young man, he purchased his lifelong-treasured violin, previously the instrument of itinerant fiddler and Civil War veteran John Dickenson. Trubie had taught himself to play, left-handed, with the encouragement of a first cousin. That same first cousin convinced Trubie to enter the competition at the Galax Fiddlers Convention. Trubie tied for first place with his performance, but had to default to the other competitor because he had only learned one piece!

Many years later, he encouraged Joan on violin and Henry on guitar to follow along some of his early tunes. His music whispered of the simplicity and purity of the Scottish mountaineer settlers of long ago. But he had few opportunities to play his violin in public, so in the meantime, he satisfied his musical bent by offering a sturdy and sure bass voice to his church choir, and to occasional male quartets.

His music flows through many of his offspring in three generations. His children and grandchildren, whether musicians or not, surely share the sentiments expressed by some of the following words, excerpted from Dan Fogelberg's Leader of the Band:

Trubie and David Mitchell, 1985

Trubie with fiddle, and grandson David Mitchell "on the piano," 1985.

He left his home and went his lone

And solitary way

And he gave to me a gift I know

I never can repay.

He earned his love through discipline

A thundering, velvet hand.

His gentle means of sculpting souls

Took me years to understand.

I thank you for the kindness

And the times when you got tough

And, pap, I don't think I

Said 'I love you' near enough.

The leader of the band is tired

And his eyes are growing old

But his blood runs through my instrument

And his song is in my soul.

My life has been a poor attempt

To imitate the man,

I'm just a living legacy

To the leader of the band.

I am the living legacy

To the leader of the band.

Trubie's life spanned almost an entire century. But his keen observation, his startlingly clear memory, his ceaseless learning and teaching, his remarkable skills of conversation and diplomacy, made him truly a man of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. He was a giant of physique, intellect, and spirit. His magnificently unfinished work will continue in the lives of thousands of his students, friends, and family members, for generations to come.

This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.