Tommy Mitchell Remembered
November 29, 2014
Amid the nonsense of Washington politics - Christmas remains a special time to remember friends and family, and especially those who are no longer with us.
For me, Tommy Mitchell was one such friend. We served together as political appointees in the Reagan Administration.
Tommy was a rare individual – he understood Washington’s ways. He realized that one could not take the city too seriously and kept his South Carolina roots.Yet he served the President well and gave his all for the cause we now know as the Reagan Revolution.
He returned to his native South Carolina - where his wife bore him a daughter - Hannah - whom he idolized. Then, quite unexpectedly, his health failed, and he quietly passed away at a very young age.
Although I had never met Hannah - I wrote her soon after his death so she could hear from someone who could recount a side of her father she could not know - the time he spent in Washington as a Reagan political appointee.
Below is my letter to Hannah, dated May 3, 2005.
I can’t tell you how saddened I was to hear the news about the loss of your Dad. He was a brother to me and truly one of my lifetime ‘best friends’. I will miss him very much.
Please allow me to say a few words about Tommy - especially how he was during the time of his life prior to knowing the love of his life - you!
We grew up together during the 1980s in Washington. Your Dad and I worked together; laughed together; sorted out life together; and spent a great deal of time doing ‘guy things’ together.
They were great, sunny days. He loved Ronald Reagan, beach music, watching videos, anything South Carolina, and long discussions about politics. He and your mom had an ‘open door’ policy at their Fairlington (Va.) apartment - and every weekend they invited me over for barbecue - which was followed by long talks and laughter into the late evening.
Everyone liked to be around your Dad. He was fun and honest and had a personal desire to be kind and to help people. It was typical for him to hold court in his office at USDA. Many people came to him with their problems or just to share a laugh or a thought. They always left smiling.
Your Dad was a serious person - there was nothing silly about him and he did not suffer fools gladly. He felt fortunate to meet and marry your Mom and he was deeply grateful to her family for loving him.
Washington was a tough town and he worked hard to succeed and succeed he did - the old fashioned way - by not losing his sense of self and always remembering his South Carolina roots.
He was very sensitive in those days and knew a thing or two about disappointment. But he was smart and comfortable enough with himself to stop and learn every step of the way, and he always maintained a deep confidence in himself and his place in life.
Oh, how he was funny! He was a wonderful story teller and could always remember and tell the latest joke. He was a ‘guy’s guy’ - a rare characteristic today. He saw the subtleties of life and could see the humor in every situation.
Everyone knew his sense of commitment to the things he believed in and his friendship ran deep and his loyalty knew no bounds. He gained the complete trust of many high ranking officials in Washington - including of course Lee Atwater - who surrounded himself with only those people he completely trusted and liked. At the time there was no larger person in Washington D. C. and national politics than Lee Atwater.
Tommy also offered his time, his advice, and his heart to anyone who might be in need of them. He was not proprietary and was completely generous with himself, his possessions, his time, and his knowledge.
I could go on and on about your Dad; what he meant to people who knew him; the life qualities he unknowingly passed along to others; and the deep imprint he left on his friends during his years in Washington.
But it is suffice to say that he lived a meaningful and worthy life and left an indelible legacy for everyone who knew him.
He once told me a story that I’ll share with you. He befriended the parent of a young friend and that parent owned a company and took a liking to Tommy. The parent offered your Dad a position in his company for the asking at anytime in the future. Sometime later, your Dad decided he needed that job so he went to the parent and asked for the position. Well, the parent did not acknowledge his previous promise and did not give Tommy a job. Tommy left hurt and disappointed.
We now know it was a blessing that the job offer did not come about. But it did leave a lasting mark on you’re Dad about the cherished importance of being honest with people and always keeping your word.
In recent days when we talked, he spoke mostly of you and the joy and love he felt for you. His thoughts were focused on you and he was very proud of the person you had become. I know how difficult it must be for you now and there are no words that will make you feel better.
But I do know that you’ll gain strength every day from the legacy your Dad left for you and from the wonderful personal qualities that he left behind for all of us during his so very worthwhile life.
I hope that one day I’ll have the chance to meet you. In the meantime, there will be few days in which I will not think of your Dad and remember the wonderful heartfelt times that he, your mom, and I shared during our years in Washington.
With Love and Blessings,
The following summer Hannah came to Washington with her mother and visited all the sights and locations where Tommy had lived and worked. She called and asked to meet with me - which we did over a wonderful lunch – where we talked and laughed about her Dad in many different ways.
Tommy would have been so happy to know that she retraced his steps in Washington and now had the connection with him from those years in Washington - a connection she otherwise could not have known.
In 2012, after graduating from the University of South Carolina, she relocated to Washington and now works at the same agency in the Department of Agriculture where her Dad served Ronald Reagan.
Tommy would be very happy to know this.
I'm sure he does.