Mitchell stays close to Southern roots
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BY JANET S. SPENCER Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 01/02/2010

Editor's Note: This story is reprinted from the Spartanburg, S.C. Herald-Journal, with their permission.

BY JANET S. SPENCER

Special to the Kennebec Journal

GAFFNEY, S.C. -- Libby Harrill Mitchell and her husband only planned to stay in Maine for a couple of years after moving there in 1971.

After almost four decades, they're still at home in the same 1840s farmhouse in Vassalboro where they raised four children and enjoy time with their six grandchildren.

Often described in the political arena as a tenacious southern belle or a Steel Magnolia, the 1958 Gaffney High School senior class president admits she's also a bit of a late bloomer with a compelling sense of humor.

"I tell people I got my law degree and Medicare card in the same year," Mitchell, 69, said during a telephone interview this week.

The Gaffney native and Furman University graduate has a long list of accomplishments and a fresh goal -- to become governor of Maine. The Democrat was the first woman in U.S. history to serve as state Senate president, her current position, and speaker of the House.

"I think anyone who has a passion for something should follow through," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said she has been covering the state and meeting people since she was first elected to the Maine Legislature in 1974. Among her goals is finding out what life is like for all residents of Maine.

"There are different ways people make a living in different areas. What do parents dream of for their kids -- to educate them and have the kids work in this state? These are questions I will continue to ask, even after the Legislature reconvenes and I'll only be able to make day trips for a few months," Mitchell said.

Mitchell's sister, Joyce Childers, of Gaffney, said she admires Mitchell's energy level.

"She's my sister, but I can say she's quite interesting and so entertaining. My children have always thought she's Mary Poppins," Childers said.

Childers has a theory about how her sister prevailed in finding a niche in the political world.

"I think her secret is she truly loves the people and she listens. She may not be able to change things, but she hears you. One of her most effective mottos is to agree to disagree, but in a friendly manner to work problems out," Childers said.

A certain amount of Mitchell's interest in politics may also be inherited. Their grandfather, Jesse Wright, was Cherokee County sheriff and served in the state Legislature; their father, Charlie Harrill, served on the county election commission; and former Sheriff Julian Wright was a relative.

Childers, a retired schoolteacher, was 7 years old on the day Mitchell was born. Their parents gave Childers a doll named Elizabeth, and Childers gave the new baby the same name.

They have remained close despite the distance between Gaffney and Maine.

"We're in touch by phone almost every day," Childers said.

A favorite story is Mitchell's response to the question, "What's a little Southern girl like you doing in Maine?"

"Libby likes to say, 'I may not have been born in Maine, but I got here as soon as I could.' Libby just loves people, and you know her career started when women did not have many opportunities. She's certainly played a role in those changes coming about," Childers said.

Mitchell said she thought her husband, Jim, also a lawyer, might become the politician in the family.

"I had never dreamed of being elected to anything. I always wanted to be a teacher," Mitchell said.

But the influence of her father, who operated a small independent grocery store at the corner of East Frederick and Lipscomb streets in Gaffney until the early 1970s, may have overshadowed any reservation she had in building a political career.

"My advice to anybody is not to be afraid to take a risk. Find out what you're passionate about. My father always told me I could do anything I wanted to. All my family members back in Gaffney have come to Maine to help in my campaigns. My father was able early in my career to come and put up signs for me. I think there's a lot of Charlie Harrill in me, and I'm very proud of that," Mitchell said.