Remembering Bill Mitchell

Bill-Mitchell-e1464973527776Paris    I first met Bill Mitchell in the winter of the very early 1970s in Billings, Montana working for several days with the staff of the Northern Plains Resource Council in what they called the Bozo house. It began a sequence of several years where I visited with the team a couple of times annually assisting in making organizing plans, strategic discussions, and training, while enjoying the comraderie so special within the organizing community that forged lifetime friendships. Bill stepped in early when it was needed there and moved many other mountains over his career, as well as shoveling for ACORN whenever he could as well. He and others welcomed me and my family and friends to their Sleepytime Duck Club in the Centennial Mountains. Whenever I was in Seattle I would see him, usually with his dogs in the back of a big SUV. I would extend an invite to the Silver Bullet along Rock Creek near Missoula, and he would promise “next year” almost every year. This year he wrote in the winter that he was going to bring a new dog down to Louisiana near New Orleans to train, and we said, “let us know when” and the welcome mat was always out. Not hearing, I got a message from him that he had a health problem requiring some chemo so he would take another rain check. The next note said it was going well. The one after that was from mutual friends saying he had died suddenly.

Sometimes I try to write of the passing of such comrades, but this time I waited, wondering if someone wouldn’t do a better job. High Country News, where he served on the board, weighed in on Bill’s passing in their most recent issue in June 27th. I might have said many different things, but I don’t think I could have said it better than they did.

High Country News, June 27, 2016

This month, we’re saying farewell with a heavy heart to a longtime friend and former board member: Bill Mitchell, who passed away May 25. Bill served as HCN board president from 2004 to 2006, and, as Executive Director Paul Larmer recalls, ‘always brought his curious mind, his decency and his sense of humor to the meetings. I always felt more capable and calm having Bill by my side.’

Bill was an organizer, who in the mid-1980s helped start the Military Production Network, a group dedicated to closing and cleaning up the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities. Colleague Bob Schaeffer recalls Bill’s ‘fidelity to the principles of democracy,’ as he pulled together activists around the country. Though he was the organization’s strategic leader and chief fundraiser, ‘the microphone was in the hands of the leaders and activists who were from the communities where the nuclear weapons plants were located,’ Schaeffer says. ‘Bill Mitchell never put himself out front.’

Current board member, Bob Fulkerson, who directs the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, says Bill ‘was responsible for getting our first big grant in 1986, to work on nuclear weapons and waste, and it’s likely our fight against Yucca Mountain would have turned out differently but for his garnering national support for our work.’

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Bill was a program officer for the Seattle-based Brainerd Foundation, where he helped numerous grassroots conservation groups, especially those fighting and coping with mining pollution. He also had his eye on the health of the environmental community itself. Fulkerson says Bill was the ‘first white man I ever heard talk about the imperative of addressing race and racism in progressive organizing. He demonstrated how white men with privilege can grow, can listen, can move from aspirational to true allies.’

We will miss you, Bill.

Amen to that! I’ve already told the hunt captain that I’ll be sending something along for this season’s hunt and many to come to toast your memory as a fellow traveler, friend, and organizer.

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