Sen. George Mitchell on Influences and Entering Politics
Question: How did your parents influence you?
George Mitchell: My father was born in Boston. His parents emigrated from Ireland to the United States, prior to 1900. He was born in Boston in 1900. He never knew his parents. We don’t know much about the history, but apparently his mother died shortly thereafter. The father couldn’t care for the children, and so my father and his siblings were all placed in orphanages in the Boston area, so my father grew up in an orphanage in central Boston, and then back in those days- it’s quite an interesting story which I didn’t learn until after my father’s death because he never spoke about his early years-- back in those days, the nuns who ran these orphanages used to take these kids out on the weekends to Catholic parishes in the rural parts of New England. And at the end of the Sunday Mass, a group of children would be lined up in the front of the church at the altar rail and anybody who wanted to adopt a child would just take one by the hand and walk out the door with them. As you can see, there’s a huge potential for abuse, and there was
+++ abuse, I think particularly in the rural areas. But in that manner, my father was adopted in Bangor, Maine by an elderly, childless couple. They then moved shortly thereafter to Waterville, Maine, which is where I grew up, and where my father grew up with his adoptive parents. It was a slum. They were very poor. My grandparents ran a small store of some kind, and back in those days, the textile mills were booming, and a lot of immigrants came in to work the textile mills, not just in Waterville, but throughout northern New England. The workers tended to be largely French-Canadian, who were emigrating from Quebec. That’s a whole different story, very interesting, but they emigrated to many cities in northern New England, particularly those which were on rivers and had textile and footwear mills. And my mother’s two sisters preceded her as immigrants from Lebanon to the United States, and they both ended up in Maine, one of them in Waterville, so when my mother emigrated in 1920, when she was eighteen years old, she went to live with her sister in Waterville, which happened to be in the same tenement working class area that my father and his parents lived in, so my parents met and married in that fashion. Back in those days, the emphasis was on assimilation. Although my father was Irish-- he had blue eyes and sandy brown hair and very light-skinned- he never, he didn’t know he was from Ireland until later in his life, and he never once mentioned the word. His adoptive parents had themselves emigrated from Lebanon to the United States many years ago, and there was a sort of a colony of immigrants, some from Quebec, some from other parts of the world, but a group from Lebanon, and so growing up, my mother, who couldn’t read or write and spoke very accented and fractured English, communicated with my father frequently in Arabic. My father, although he had no education, he worked all of his life- learned to speak French fluently because of the influence of the area. And so, their communication was in Arabic. My father spoke a good bit of French, and our whole growing up was to assimilate and become American. That sort of was the ideal of my parents. We were very poor, but never any sense of deprivation. My father worked primarily as a laborer for a local utility. When he lost that job, he was out of work for about a year. That was a very tough year, my senior year in high school. And then he got a job as a janitor at Colby College, which is in our hometown of Waterville. My mother, on the very first day she arrived as an eighteen-year-old girl, got a job in a textile mill. There was a mill almost directly adjacent to this tenement area, and she spent almost all of her adult life working in one of several textile mills that ringed the area. She worked a night shift for about forty years.
Question: Did you know what you wanted to do when you were growing up?
George Mitchell: No, no, I had absolutely no idea. I was young and naïve and ignorant, and uncertain and insecure. I did fairly well in school. I don’t think I applied myself very well, but I was kind of fortunate, and so I graduated from high school when I was sixteen years old, and from college when I was twenty. Most of my early life was devoted to fending off an inferiority complex because my three older brothers were great athletes and I was not. I was not as good as my brothers. In fact, I often say jokingly that I was not as good as anybody else’s brother. And so, very early as a young boy, I began to be known around our little town as “Johnny Mitchell’s kid brother-- the one who isn’t any good.” Well, you can guess what that does to a young guy, so that was my life early, and as I said in my earlier comments, my father lost his job when I was a senior in high school. It was a very tough year. He had a very tough time with it. And so there was quite a bit of uncertainty about whether or not I would go on to college. My three older brothers had gone on, two with split scholarships, and one had gone through a Navy training program in the last years of the Second World War. So, it wasn’t quite certain in my case, but by a number of accidents that worked to my good fortune, I ended up going to Bowdoin, a really great school, but even then I never thought of a political career. That didn’t come ‘til quite a bit later in my life.