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If you like George Mitchell's story, you might also like:
Ehud Barak,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
Mikhail Gorbachev,
John Hume,
Shimon Peres,
Alan Simpson,
Desmond Tutu,
Antonio Villaraigosa and Andrew Young

George Mitchell can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

George Mitchell's recommended reading: The Moon is Down

Related Links:
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Mitchell Institute

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George Mitchell
George Mitchell
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George Mitchell Interview

Presidential Medal of Freedom

June 7, 2002
Dublin, Ireland

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  George Mitchell

Tell us about your parents, if you would. Where were they from? What did they do?

George Mitchell: My mother was an immigrant from Lebanon to the United States. She came when she was 18 years old in 1920. My father was the orphaned son of immigrants to the United States from Ireland. My father never knew his parents. His mother died -- we're not sure -- either at or shortly after his birth, and he and all of his siblings were placed in orphanages in the Boston area. So my father grew up in an orphanage in Boston. He was then adopted by an elderly childless couple from Maine, who gave him the name of Mitchell. He moved to Maine, and there he met my mother and was married. My parents had no education. My mother couldn't read or write English. She worked nights in a textile mill. My father was a janitor at a local college in our hometown. But they were part of that generation of Americans who had a very deep commitment to the education of their children. They had, really, an exaggerated notion of the value of education. But their life's goal was to see to it that their children received the education that they never got, and in that, they were successful. They had five children, all of whom went on to graduate from college, and several of us have graduate degrees as well.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

George Mitchell Interview Photo
My parents were very poor, but we never felt any sense of need or want. It was a very close, loving, tightly-knit family growing up, and I never felt any sense of deprivation or anything like that. I really owe everything to my parents and their devotion and drive to see to it that their children had the education which led to the opportunities that they never were able to have.

Do you think they also imparted a work ethic, to work hard and go for what you want?

George Mitchell: Yes, a very strong work ethic.

I've worked since I was really a very small boy. Everybody in my family held numerous jobs. I delivered newspapers, shoveled snow, washed cars. I myself worked as a janitor all through junior high school and high school, cleaning the local boys' club, the local government office, the unemployment compensation office, other facilities, and my brother and I ran kind of what we'd now call a janitorial service at night. So after school, we'd go and play ball and then go to all these offices, and as soon as they'd close, we'd go and sweep up and clean up. So I've always worked throughout my entire life, and my parents did impart that to me, a very strong work ethic. My parents, particularly my father, had a profound belief in America. His view was that if you were lucky enough to live in America, and you had an education, and you were willing to work hard, you couldn't possibly fail. Those were the keys to success, and he drummed that into us throughout our whole life.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What kind of student were you growing up? Were you a very serious student? Did you have an interest in sports?

George Mitchell: I had a great interest in sports. I had three older brothers who were great athletes. I was not. I started school at an early age. I graduated from high school when I was 16, and so I was the one member of my family who was not a good athlete. In fact...

One of my older brothers, Johnny, was a very famous athlete and went on to great exploits in college. For years, I was introduced as Johnny Mitchell's kid brother, the one who wasn't any good. So I developed very early a massive inferiority complex, and I've told the story often about how that inspired me later in life to get involved in other things, because I couldn't out-do my brothers in sports, and it's a very competitive relationship. So I got into politics, thinking that I might become mayor of our home town someday.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

George Mitchell Interview Photo

I was an indifferent student. And to illustrate the truth of the cliché that one person can make a difference, one woman made a real difference in my life. I was in high school. I had been an indifferent student. I did quite well, but not through any real effort, and I didn't really read much -- comic books and only as much as necessary.

My high school English teacher was an elderly, gracious woman named Elvira Whiting. One day, Mrs. Whiting asked me to come back after class to see her. I didn't have any idea what she wanted. She engaged in a little polite conversation, and then she said, "What do you read? What have you been reading lately?" And I said, "Well, not much." Really, I didn't read anything other than what was necessary to get by in school. And she said, "Well, I'd like you to consider reading a book," and she handed me a book. She made it clear I didn't have to read it. It wasn't part of an assignment. But I liked her and wanted very much to please her, so I said I would do it. And she said, "When you finish, come back and tell me about it." The title of it was The Moon Is Down. It was a short novel by John Steinbeck, a fictionalized account of the Nazi occupation of Norway during the Second World War. I went home, and I read the entire book that night. The next day, I went back to see her. I told her about it, and she smiled, and she said, "Well, here's another one." And this went on for several months, and I read many books that Mrs. Whiting gave me. Then one day in the spring of that school year, she said to me, "I think you're ready to pick your own books now." So she had an amazing effect on me. She opened my eyes to a world of knowledge I didn't really know existed before, and created in me what was the first faint sense of self-worth.

George Mitchell Interview Photo

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