Remembering Bill Mitchell

by Ralph Hutchison
Coordinator, Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance

When I entered the room at Highlander Center in 1989, I was immediately overwhelmed. Everyone else in the room, it seemed, had been deeply immersed in activism for decades. They knew tons more than I did, were full of confidence, ideas, fire. I was quiet, and took a spot off to the side as I usually do when I am figuring out a new situation.

The one person quieter than me was in the back of the room, observing everything, rarely speaking, slipping out now and again for a smoke.

The second day, as I walked across the driveway to dinner, the quiet man stepped up beside me and began to talk. Calm and deliberate, he asked me to consider serving on the board of the Military Production Network. I was taken aback—my first meeting? Why me? He explained that he had listened to what I said and thought it would be good if I took on some responsibility. I said I would think about it. That was my introduction to Bill Mitchell.

Eventually, I agreed and was elected—not as much of an honor as you might think, as everyone who was ever nominated was elected. The Board would meet on conference calls for the most part. It would be a couple years before Dick Dillman, computer whiz for Greenpeace, would set up a private communication system for us at Bill’s request, long before the rest of the world was wired or had heard of email.

Two weeks later, a package arrived at my home. I opened it and found an answering machine. Plug it in, said the note from Bill.

That was what he did. He equipped us to do our work. The first grant money OREPA received came through Bill Mitchell. Not directly. Directly it came from Larry Kressley of Public Welfare Foundation, but it was Bill who told him to look us up. Then Bill went to work on the W. Alton Jones foundation, and they contracted with Ben Senturi to develop a docket to support grassroots groups working on nuclear weapons, waste and cleanup issues.

Almost thirty years later, OREPA thrives, bearing witness to nuclear weapons activities in Oak Ridge, strategizing and collaborating with colleagues around the country in what is now the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. We have reached thousands of people. We have delayed construction of the next generation of bomb plants for more than a decade. We have grown stronger every year. And if not for Bill Mitchell, for his wisdom and foresight and most of all for his remarkable commitment to empowering grassroots groups to make their own decisions and pursue their goals with adequate resources, we would not exist at all.

At one point in the life of the MPN, Bill was accused of being a “hidden hand,” orchestrating the activities of the organization. This was an insult to the members, all of whom were responsible for what the organization did. And it was a misunderstanding of Bill. He was quiet, not hiding. Holding back, not pushing an agenda. His goal was to empower others; he did it with quiet confidence leavened with self-doubt. A neat trick, but he pulled it off.

I remember one evening in Amarillo, Texas. The MPN had gone to Amarillo for our meeting because we had a big blank spot on our map of the nuclear weapons complex—we had groups at all the major weapons sites except Pantex, the assembly/disassembly plant. Bill had wrangled an invitation from STAND, working to revive a group that had been Serious Texans Against Nuclear Dumping in an earlier life. When he asked me to step into the back room with Beverly Gattis, lovely, well manicured and coiffed dentist’s wife who was the local STAND person, I recognized the look on her face—she was nearly dumbstruck by the experience of two days in the room with all these veteran activists. David Lewis, then of Physicians for Social Responsibility joined us. We talked about the evening’s agenda. David said it was great STAND was participating. Bev said she was not sure why, she didn’t feel like she knew half of what was happening in the room. “I don’t have any idea what I am supposed to do,” she said. David smiled. “You’re supposed to go out there and ask us to help you.” Bev’s eyes overflowed with tears. Bill sat quietly and nodded. It wasn’t his job to say anything—he just brought people together to let them be themselves. And in front of him, you wanted to be your best self.

Oh, and he was a lot of fun. I don’t recall the particulars of how this came to be, but for some reason I sent him a fake letter from Richard Nixon that said, simply, “I resign.” Some time later I was in the MPN office/closet in Seattle and saw it was framed, along with a picture of Nixon, in the office. When Bill was given parts to play in MPN skits, he was all in. Acting, it turns out, was not his second calling, or even his third. But he was a trooper! Later, when we created a parody musical to tease Bill and Sharon, they proved they could take it as well as they dished it out.

Over the years, I spoke to Bill only rarely. A common friend of ours in Tennessee would ask every time I saw him what I heard from Bill, so I thought of him often. When I reached out, with a question or seeking advice, he was always there, always generous with his time, always still caring.

I miss him. But I have to qualify that just a bit. Because I am, thanks to Bill Mitchell, a different person. A little bit of him resides in me. I don’t have any other way to explain why I feel so strongly about grassroots empowerment, and leadership development, and collaborative work. I don’t have any other explanation for why I think it’s important to be generous with my time and advice, and patient with people who are feeling their way forward. I only know it happened for me.

I don’t think Bill would be completely comfortable getting public credit. I think he would more likely wish those who respected him and his work would credit him by carrying that torch on. So thanks, Bill. We’re doing our best.