1990 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Everyone has an obligation to participate in some form of public activity to give back to the society from which most of us received so much."
The fourth of five children, George Mitchell, Jr., was born in 1933 in Waterville, Maine. His father, the orphan son of Irish immigrants, was a laborer and janitor. Mitchell's mother, who emigrated from Lebanon as a young girl, worked the overnight shift at a local textile mill. "My mother was probably the most important person in my life," says Mitchell. "She was very energetic, very supportive."
All the children were expected to help the family financially. They took buses to vegetable fields and picked beans and peas for less than $1 a day. As a teenager, Mitchell and his older brothers cleaned the local boys club at night.
Mitchell attended parochial school. His father, who left school at an early age, was determined his children would be educated. "Each of us did get a college degree," says Mitchell. After graduating high school at the age of 16, Mitchell attended Bowdoin College. He worked his way through with a succession of jobs, including dormitory proctor, fraternity steward, and truck driver. During summers, he worked on construction crews during the day and then did a shift as a night watchman in a mill. After graduation, he served in the Army for two years and then attended Georgetown University Law School. He served two years at the Justice Department before becoming executive assistant to Senator Edmund Muskie. In 1965, he returned to Maine to enter private law practice. He became active in Democratic politics, rising to become Democratic National Committeeman from Maine, a post he held until 1977.
Mitchell became U. S. Attorney for Maine in 1977, and was appointed a U. S. District Court Judge in 1979. He resigned the judgeship, however, to accept an appointment to the Senate to complete the term of Senator Muskie, who had become Secretary of State. In 1982, Mitchell won the Senate seat in his own right. He was elected Senate majority leader at the conclusion of the 100th Congress. He earned national recognition for his leading role in the Iran-Contra hearings, about which he and fellow Maine Senator William Cohen co-authored a book, Men of Zeal.
In 1997, Mitchell wrote a book, Not for America Alone, which chronicles the triumph of democracy and the fall of communism. He also served as co-independent chairman of the talks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which culminated in the Northern Ireland Peace Accord. He wrote the story of those negotiations in his 1999 book, Making Peace.
Mitchell's advice to youth is to do your best with the job you currently hold, rather than looking beyond to the next job. "When I became a federal judge I never dreamed I'd become a senator, then I thought I probably wouldn't be re-elected, and I never dreamed I'd be majority leader," he says. He recommends public service as a career to young people. "I think everyone has an obligation to participate in some form of public activity to give something back to the society from which most of us have received so much."
Mitchell says his Horatio Alger Award has meant a great deal to him and says, "The work being done to help educate America's deserving youth is commendable."