By Joyce Coronel
Harry Mitchell spent 28 years teaching American government and economics at Tempe High School, but he insists it was the lessons he taught his own son and daughter that bring a smile to his face today.
Sipping coffee inside Cornucopia Café in West Chandler, the former mayor of Tempe, state senator and U.S. Congressman looked back on the years he and his wife Marianne spent raising their daughter Amy, a local teacher, and Mark, the current mayor of Tempe, and summed up the wisdom gleaned:
“It was important to support everything they did,” Mitchell said. “We kept them involved in school activities and we attended everything.
I still do that with my grandkids.”
Of course, when the kids did well, that came with bragging rights. Then there were the times when they didn’t score the winning goal.
“You still have to encourage them all the time. Whatever they’re doing is great,” Mitchell said. “You continually reinforce everything and try to keep them involved.”
At one point, Amy wanted to join a softball team. After getting stuck in right field, she grew bored.
“I said, ‘You can’t quit,’” Mitchell recalled. “Whatever they started, they had to finish. They didn’t have to do it the next year. Quitting is too easy—life’s not that easy. Everything’s not going to just fall in place.”
Mitchell said he and his wife—they were both high school teachers—kept the kids busy during the summer, often traveling to Disneyland or attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual meeting. But summers weren’t all fun and games.
“We would never let them sleep past 9 a.m. ‘You’ve got to get up. You’re not sleeping in. You have chores to do and things around the house to help,’” Mitchell would tell the kids. All those chores helped “pay their way” for the family trips, but he also wanted them to experience the real world of employment as they got older.
“I wanted them to have a summer job but not with a lot of other kids,” Mitchell said. “I wanted them to be with adults so they would learn something.” Mark worked in a cabinet shop and Amy was a volunteer teacher with a local organization.
“The other thing we did was we supported them in their activities. If they needed something, we took care of it,” Mitchell said.
Fifty years later, he still lives in the same house near Rural and Broadway. “We never moved so I guess that’s why we could afford to do things.”
Both Amy and Mark spent a lot of time at Tempe High as they were growing up, accompanying Mitchell to school activities. As coach of the freshman and junior varsity football teams as well as the sponsor for student council, Mitchell said he would take his children to help decorate the gym for school dances. “They grew up at the school,” he said.
Mark often accompanied his father to Tempe City Council functions. Mitchell served on the council and then was mayor for 16 years. He went on to become a state senator, spending eight years at the Arizona legislature, and then four years as a U.S. Congressman.
Politics was in his blood, it seems.
“My grandfather lived a block away from us and he was in the legislature,” Mitchell noted. “He would get me out of school and I’d spend the day with him at the legislature.” As Mitchell got older, he helped put up campaign signs, and when his grandfather’s vision declined, he drove him to meetings around town.
“I was always hooked on politics and government. Even in high school, I took all the social science classes you could take.” At Arizona State University, he majored in political science. Mitchell said he also hopes to be remembered one day as a good politician, “the opposite of the stereotypes.”
Even though things are so much different now compared to when Amy and Mark were growing up, Mitchell insists the fundamentals are the same:
“You’ve got to support them. They may want to dress a certain way but just stick with them. They all go through phases and fads.”
That theme of being there for loved ones continues to this day for the grandfather of five. Mitchell’s beloved wife, Marianne, suffers from Alzheimer’s and needs round-the-clock care.
Ten months ago, she became a resident in a local care center. Every morning at 7:30 Mitchell is there by her side. He spends two hours visiting with her, having conversations which he said probably wouldn’t make sense to outsiders. But that’s not what matters, he emphasized. It’s being in the moment with her.
“I want to be known as a good caregiver,” Mitchell said. “And I want to set an example.” Like the oft-quoted “Everything I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten” maxims, he’s created his own set of guiding principles, dubbed “Everything I need to get along with people I learned from being an Alzheimer’s caregiver.” Being positive, patient, supporting and encouraging figure high on the list.
Whether as a parent or a caregiver, he said, you’re going to make mistakes. You learn things along the way, he said.
“I’ve been blessed in my life. I’ve got no regrets.”