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Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times

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By any measure, whichever name
-- Bubba, Mayer, Mr. Mitchell --
it added up to a big, influential life

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Everybody says Mayer Mitchell was smart and there's no doubt -- evidence the corporate jets, shopping centers, apartment complexes, big houses, jaw-dropping charitable contributions, the parade of political and business leaders seeking his counsel -- but when Gordon Kahn says "Bubba" was smart he's talking about the A's he got back in the second grade at Leinkauf.

"He was just smart by always being smart,"  Kahn said of Mitchell who died here early Wednesday at 74.

"I've known him all of his life and he's known me all of mine," said Kahn, a retired federal bankruptcy judge and longtime Delwood neighbor of Mitchell and his wife, Arlene. "My mother and his mother were best friends."

"I grew up with an older brother Nathan and when people live in Mobile, the two of you were considered a unit," said Kahn. "Bubba and (his younger brother) Abe were considered a unit."

Jewish kids growing up in Mobile back in those days were especially tight-knit, said Kahn, always together at school, then Hebrew school afterward and into the synagogue.

"You've got to understand in those years we were growing up in Mobile, the Jewish kids were all very close together," Kahn said. "We did everything together. We'd go to Hebrew school together after regular school to study Hebrew. What it did was put us all together on so many occasions and gave us the opportunity to become friends. In business and in private, he always conducted himself well. He was a good family man."

"He was always very smart, very active," said Kahn. "We were schoolmates in grammar school at Leinkauf. Then we went on to military school. At first it was GCMA (Gulf Coast Military Academy) between Biloxi and Gulfport. It was a fine school. He always made good grades. Then it was Riverside Military in Georgia. And then he went to the Wharton School of Finance."

"People in Mobile don't realize what an important man Mayer was," Kahn said. "He participated at the highest echelons of national and international politics."

"To use his own words, he was an 'upfront Jew,'" Kahn said.

The Mobile Bay Times contacted a number of Mitchell's friends, associates and colleagues for their recollections of Mitchell:

U.S. Sen Jeff Sessions: "Within the United States Senate, Mayer Mitchell was the best known private citizen in Alabama. He was on a first name basis with top leaders such as Mitch McConnell, Trent Lott and Jon Kyl. They liked him and valued his judgment. While he was well known and respected among Democrats, he was particularly close to Republicans. No other Alabamian was on a first name basis with so many Senators.

President (George) Bush admired him greatly. He called him Bubba and when he came to Mobile for me in June the President called him to check on his health, and I understand he called again in recent days.

People would sometimes ask, “What do you call him, Mayer or Bubba?” I remember that question being asked to my State Director’s wife, Phyllis Spurlock and she replied, “I don’t know what you should call him. I call him Mr. Mitchell!”

Sports analyst Danny Sheridan: "I first met a very tough and no-nonsense 26-year-old guy named Mayer "Bubba" Mitchell, who was principal of our Sunday School when I was 12 and sent to him for misbehaving in a Sunday School class. I never knew fear until I met him and can assure you, while I was not an angel growing up, I NEVER had to be disciplined by him again. Of all my public school teachers and principals (and I had some great ones), he was head and shoulders over any of them ... bright, wise, very tough, but fair, and ALWAYS 2-3 steps ahead of me and everyone else.

He had a vision and implemented it, and nothing could alter that course if he felt he was right, NOTHING, not even his cancer illness ... in control to the end, thinking of his family, charity and doing more to make the world better.

Years later he along with his brother Abe and Billy Lubel offered me a job at the Mitchell Company, while I was enjoying partying nightly for months while interviewing for jobs in Atlanta. His father Joe also hired my dad and taught him enough to one day start his own successful business. I worked for them from 1969 to late October, 1975, when I left to start my own business. I called on only two people for advice -- my father second and Bubba first. He gently grilled me for 30 minutes about my potential occupation and at the end, he gave me his Solomon-esque advice: "Do it, and make sure you continue to make your family and us proud of you and if it doesn't work, always know that that door (to his office) that you're about to leave, swings both ways (in other words, if it doesn't work, you're always welcome back)."

Imagine how great is to know you're about to embark on a journey that may fail, but you're welcome back to a future in the one you just left ... a win-win situation and how many of us are lucky enough to get an offer like that? Mayer Mitchell's company didn't need me, but I needed him and his support, and he gladly gave it with no conditions attached, and I'll never forget that. When I left his office, I knew whatever I did, I was going to do my best to make him and my family proud of me.

I'm told his favorite old Hebrew proverb about giving was "when you give when your living, it's gold. When you give when you're sick, it's silver. But give when you are dead, it's lead."

University of South Alabama President Gordon Moulton said at Friday's memorial service for Bubba, "I can tell you that there were thousands of acts of kindness that most of us never knew about." I can safely add "most of us, if not all of us will never know about them."

I do not possess, nor will I ever,  the vocabulary to best describe this giant, larger-than-life wonderful person. However, having known him and seen the thousands he's quietly helped, never asking or expecting a return favor (unless it benefited society),  one of the many sayings that would partially describe him to those of us fortunate to have known him would be: "There's a BIG gap between advice and help." 

Former Congressman Jack Edwards: "I remember the time in 1982 when the word got out that I was not going to run for Congress again. I thought 18 years was enough. Mayer got Arthur Outlaw and Don Bigler to come to Washington with him and they pleaded for me to run one more time. They really worked me over and I did agree to run again. He was very persuasive and he was right. He argued that by retiring in the middle of Ronald Reagan's first term it would be harder to hold my seat in the Republican column. If I stayed through Reagan's first term then the Republican candidate would have a better chance running with Reagan. So I served one more term and then Sonny Callahan was able to run with Reagan. Sonny won and served 18 years and was a very good Congressman.

"I always argued that Mayer was a better politician than I was. I retired from Congress in 1985. In 1988 the nominating committee from the University Of Alabama System Board of Trustees visited with me for suggestions about who they should nominate to serve on the board. I recommended Mayer Mitchell as the best in Mobile. Then they went to Mayer and he recommended me. When I was chosen to serve on the board Mayer and I laughed -- once again he proved that he had more clout than I did; he was the better politician. In hindsight look what he has done for the University of South Alabama as a member of their board."

Former Mobile Mayor Mike Dow: "Mayer and I had a discussion one day about how near death experiences could change your life and priorities. I talked about having my helicopter shot down and being left in a rice paddy under fire during my Vietnam door gunner days and on another occasion crashing from 2,000 feet into the jungle due to an engine failure. I thought on both occasions that I was dead. I experienced intense flashing thoughts of my short life ended and unlived. Mayer discussed his cancer scare and how once recovered he felt he had a second chance at life. We talked about how precious second chances were and how those experiences changed one's priorities.

Our discussion went to our more intense appreciation and joy for life, for our friends and loved ones. We discussed our clear thoughts and desire for action related to caring more and helping other people. I respected Mayer and I did not call him often or on small matters. He had an international agenda of business, faith and politics.

Once while I was in his office, the phone rang and Mayer said, 'Excuse me, Mike, it’s the president.' The conversation related to Israel. Mayer always followed through and helped me when I asked him. I knew he respected my hard work and he cared for me. I am so sad that I did not and will not see him again."

Another neighbor, friend and business associate, Bert Meisler said an almost manic holiday football feast sticks out in his memory.

"One of the most memorable trips I ever had with Mayer Mitchell was many years ago. We went to New Orleans one New Year's Eve and got up the next day and saw Auburn and Oklahoma play in the Sugar Bowl back when Pat Sullivan was Auburn's quarterback. After the game, we got on National Airlines and flew to Miami. We checked into the hotel room in time to watch Illinois play in the Rose Bowl. That night we went to watch Alabama play in the Orange Bowl. The next morning we went to watch the Miami professional team play a championship game in the Orange Bowl. We watched three football games live and one on TV all within a 36-hour period. That's just something that stands out in my mind."

"He was a champion of the religion," said Meisler. "No one did more for the Jewish people in Israel and the state of Israel in this country than Mayer Mitchell. He was a leader of AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee). He lobbied and worked for funds for Israel, for its defense and for humanitarian funds. You can't forget all he did for the state of Alabama, for its universities and other things throughout the state. And as much as he loved Alabama football, he loved South Alabama basketball. He had total support for South Alabama basketball. He rarely missed a game."

Real estate executive Berney Malkove: "Bubba was a very private person, as is Arlene. When I was selected Mobilian of the Year in '99, he was one of the first to call me and congratulate me and he let me know that Arlene was selected a few years before me. He always said that he made the money and he let Arlene give it away. That is not entirely true, but whatever she got involved in, he backed her up. I got her on the Board of Directors of the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Alabama and she really got involved.

Whenever he supported a political candidate, he would usually contact other members of the local Jewish community to also contribute. He would ask us to come to his home and meet the candidate and let the candidate know that the Jewish community supported the candidate.

You may only be aware of his local philanthropy, but he was equally involved in support for Israel. He probably knew every U.S. congressman and pushed them to support Israel, to the point that he would take them over there."

Mobile businessman/restaurateur David Cooper: ""Here is a man that Presidents called for advice on the Middle East and other issues, a man that moved mountains with one phone call and I’m supposed to call him Bubba? I don’t think so. A year or two ago I persuaded Mayer to join me on a quail hunt in North Alabama. He really didn’t hunt often and was apprehensive about the trip. I loaned him a shotgun and accompanied him to McCoy’s to buy the proper hunting clothes and off we went. Being a natural athlete, Mayer immediately outshot us all and appeared to be a veteran quail hunter. He really enjoyed the social aspect of the trip and as usual took every opportunity to promote Mobile and its initiatives throughout the State. He once again told me that his close friends call him Bubba and I responded that I was more comfortable calling him Mayer as I had just finally conquered my inclination to call him Mr. Mitchell."

Mobile real estate executive Don Kelly: "I could write a book on Mayer's help and his influence on my life professionally and personally. The one thing that does stand out is Mayer being very proud that the three present owners of The Mitchell Company, John (Saint), Chuck (Stefan) and myself were all hired by Mayer at entry level positions and grew up through various levels of responsibility through his tutelage and training to assume the highest level positions of the company to become owners."

Former banker Tom Horst: "I knew him well. We were in Leinkauf together, though he was a couple of years behind me. We were in the Leinkauf Court at the same time; that was a long time ago, back in the '30s. He will be greatly missed in Mobile -- sort of like Palmer

Advertising executive Richard Sullivan: "I was trying to get the Altus (Bank) account back like in 1988. So I saw Mayer on the golf course and said I wanted to meet with him.

He said, 'Come to the house tonight.'

I said, 'What time?'

He said 'Six.'

He was a man of few words, I'll tell you that.

So I go over and walk into the house and he and Arlene greet me. He's got a drink.

He says, 'Come in, I'm drinking scotch.'

He says, 'Do you like scotch?'

I hate scotch.

I said, 'I like scotch.'

Then he said, 'Well, what do you want?'

I said, 'I'm trying to get the Altus account. What can I do?'

He said, 'You seem like a good man. Okay, I'll help you.'

After I stomached two swallows of scotch, that was all there was to it.
Arlene showed me to the door.

I got the Altus business and he never asked me for anything at any time.
He did a favor for me and never asked anything in return. He was always very kind to me, very kind.

However, Mitchell did one time have a question, if not a request, for Sullivan who was president of the Country Club of Mobile.

"Mayer didn't come to you; you went to him," Sullivan said. "He said, 'Why don't you put a Jewish member on the board of directors?'"

"I said, 'I'm not going to put a member on the board because he's Jewish, but I'm not going to put a member on the board because he's not Jewish.'"

"He said, 'That's a good answer.'"

"He was a good guy, a wonderful man," Sullivan said. "He was kind to people who he didn't need to be kind to and that says volumes about him."

Sullivan said an under-appreciated aspect of the Mitchell's contribution to the betterment of Mobile stems from their single-family housing developments.

"The way they priced those houses let so many first time buyers into the market," Sullivan said. "They built up equity and were able to move up. That's a tremendous contribution to the quality of life in Mobile. With a Mitchell house, $100 and move in and back then people could get a house and afford the note. They built equity and improved their lot in life and continued to move up. That's a tremendous contribution." 

Local financial adviser Chuck McNeil: "I met Mayer back in the late 60's or actually probably the early '70's. He got his cancer in the mid-60's and I came down with cancer not too much later. I think I was diagnosed in 1970 or '71. We got to know each other taking our treatments. We both loved Alabama football and I was president of the Red Elephant Club back then. Mayer had had a relapse with his cancer and I was in the middle of taking my cancer treatments. This was about the time that Alabama played a real big game up in Knoxville against Tennessee. Alabama was down and there was only about 2-1/2 minutes left. Alabama scored and could take the lead with a two-point conversion. Coach Bryant decided to kick the extra point and tie the game rather than go for two and the win, and fans were wondering why he did it, sort of like Coach Saban kicking the field goal late against Arkansas a couple of weeks ago. Tennessee got the ball back and fumbled and Alabama won the game in the last few seconds. Just a great game. Someone commissioned an oil painting by LeRoy Nieman, I think, but it may have been somebody else, of the game winning play. Mayer still has the original oil painting. I had had a bad relapse of my cancer and Mayer just showed up one day out of the blue with a print of that painting. I've still got it. It meant a lot to me that Mayer thought about me and that game and came up to my room to give me that."

Neighbor and longtime friend Matt Metcalfe: "Mobile and the state have lost a truly outstanding leader. I first met Mayer I guess in 1976. He was Mr. Everything to Mobile.

Mayer's life was built on overcoming huge challenges and obstacles, including personal health issues, economic and civic.

I recall several years ago after a meeting of civic leaders who were discussing the proposed new mayor/seven-member council form of government when it ended with a leading civic figure declaring that the task was impossible. Mayer and I walked to the parking lot together. We were standing there and he said, 'Matt, I'm not willing to accept defeat.' He said he could talk to (then state Rep.) Mary Zoghby and a couple of others in the Legislature. Of course, the bill passed.

Mayer leaves a lasting influence on our community that will effect all of our lives for the better, both culturally and health-wise."  

Mobile attorney Irving Silver: "Mayer was a rare philanthropic visionary. Motivated by a keen sense of justice he, joined by Arlene and Abe, manifested a passion for not only funding but strengthening a huge number of charitable, educational and religious organizations to help people, especially those who were in distress. He was a great mentor, colleague and friend whose towering presence in so many important and worthwhile areas of our lives will be deeply and sorely missed. May his memory be forever a blessing."

University of South Alabama fundraiser Joe Busta: "Three immediate thoughts:

The first of Mayer -- "Many professionals have great 'instincts' but I have yet to work with anyone who had better instincts than Mayer whether they be on a political, business or personal level. His ability to instantly assess a situation and develop a plan was truly special."

The second on Mayer -- "His life was always centered on Arlene and his family ... truly as devoted a family man as one will ever know."

Third on Abe and Mayer -- "Theirs is a bond like no two brothers I have ever known, their strengths perfectly complemented each other, and their working relationship was such that I'm convinced each was a better person because of the other."

A service in remembrance of Mitchell is set at 2 p.m. Friday at the Mitchell Center on the University of South Alabama campus. The public is welcome.
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