Whispering Pines: A Key to Success

In this month’s column, John Cross ’76 weaves a historical College narrative from a thread on eBay.

Over the years I have watched as my mother braided oval wool rugs from strips of fabric remnants and “deconstructed” clothing, carefully selecting colors and patterns for each braided strand to achieve a harmonious overall effect in the coiled rug. It is a skill that she learned from her grandmother and refined through years of experience. At times I feel as though the act of rug braiding is analogous to creating intertwined strands of historical narrative from scraps that may include individual objects, biographical details, and the ways in which the past occasionally intersects the present.

This story begins with an object listed on the eBay online auction site – a Phi Beta Kappa key, inscribed “1912 Bowdoin J.A. Mitchell.” Bowdoin’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, Alpha of Maine, was established in 1825 as the academic honor society’s sixth chapter.  The key is a square gold medallion with the engraved symbols of the Society – the Greek letters ΦΒΚ, a hand pointing to a cluster of stars, the date of the society’s founding (December 5, 1776), the initials “S.P.” (“Societas Philosophiae”) – and the name, college, and year of induction of the member.  At a time when pocket watches were in fashion, many members wore the key as a watch fob, and in the 19th century a stem or post for winding watches became part of the key’s design.

J. Arnett Mitchell of Gallipolis, Ohio, entered Bowdoin as a member of the Class of 1913 and graduated in three years as a member of 1912, cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He was the fourth African-American to enroll at Bowdoin as an undergraduate, and was the second African-American elected to Phi Beta Kappa at the College (the first was Samuel Dreer of the Class of 1910). The 1912 Bugle entry for “Mitch” indicates the high regard with which he was held by his classmates, although the quote selected by the editors to accompany his photo – “I stood among them but not one of them – and yet at heart I was” – speaks volumes about the attitudes and expectations that on occasion must have left Mitchell feeling alone in a crowded room of his fellow students. I wish that I could read his Commencement address on “Race Relations,” but, unfortunately, there is no copy in the College’s archives.

Following his graduation Mitchell studied in Germany, taught English at Tuskegee, and was dean of the academic department at Southern University in Louisiana. Considered ineligible for military service during World War I because of problems with his health and his vision, Mitchell wrote to Dean Kenneth C. M. Sills [1901], asking for assistance in obtaining a position in intelligence work to help the war effort. In 1921 Mitchell became the principal of Champion Avenue Middle School in Columbus, Ohio, a position that he held for 38 years.

Further research brought to light J. Arnett Mitchell’s significant contributions to public education in America. Champion was an all-Black, de facto segregated school in a northern urban context. In a 1924 article in the Educational Research Bulletin on race and IQ, Mitchell challenged the conventional interpretation that lower scores on standardized tests for African-Americans measured ability. He pointed out that African-American students scored higher “in states where educational opportunity was better,” and that there was “no evidence to support the belief that this difference is any greater than that existing between different economic levels of whites – professional class, skilled laborers down through the unskilled laborers.”

Mitchell earned a master of arts degree from The Ohio State University in 1925, and encouraged all of the teachers at Champion to earn advanced degrees. Dr. Adah Ward Randolph of Ohio University has written extensively on Mitchell’s tenure at Champion, pointing out that “Mitchell and his cadre of hand-picked teachers expected respect, order, and success.” One passage in her 2004 article in the journal Urban Education jumped out:  “…Mitchell stressed educational excellence.  To serve as a role model, he always wore his Phi Beta Kappa key at Champion” [emphasis mine].

The final strand in the braided narrative concerns the recent history and the future of the key itself.  How did it end up on eBay?

In searching for clues as to why J. Arnett Mitchell came to Bowdoin and what inspired his life-long commitment to educational excellence, I found some hints in his hometown of Gallipolis, which sits  across the Ohio River from West Virginia.  In 1908 Gallipolis’s all-Black Lincoln High School had a new principal. Edward Alexander Bouchet had taught chemistry and physics for 26 years at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia before accepting the position at Lincoln. He was the first African-American to have graduated from Yale (1874), the first African-American to have earned a doctorate from an American university (Physics, Yale, 1876), and, but for a technicality, would have been the first African-American elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Yale’s chapter was inactive for 13 years, so Bouchet’s election in 1884 followed the election of George Washington Henderson at the University of Vermont in 1877. Mitchell’s younger sister, Lillian, recalled that Bouchet was a frequent visitor in the Mitchell home, and that Arnett would talk extensively with him when he returned from Bowdoin each summer. Bouchet’s intellectual brilliance, achievements, and desire to “pay it forward” so that a new generation of students might have opportunities matched to their abilities are still inspirational more than a century later; I can only imagine the profound effect that those conversations might have had on Mitchell.

Whatever Mitchell’s experiences were as an undergraduate at Bowdoin, he became a popular and well-liked member of his class. His letters to College officials and classmates express his gratitude that Bowdoin’s voice was heard among the speeches at his retirement celebration in Columbus in 1959, and that a photo and story appeared in the alumni magazine. In his words, “The days I spent at Bowdoin mean more and more to me as the years pass on.  Bowdoin taught me the spirit of idealism, of a dissatisfaction with things as they are; it taught me the joy of achievement. And I find that these things bring a happiness which transcends race or color.”

The final strand in the braided narrative concerns the recent history and the future of the key itself.  How did it end up on eBay? The auction listing only indicated that the key had come from an estate. Arnett Mitchell died in 1969, and his wife and four children are all now deceased. A Phi Beta Kappa key is small enough to be lost among the contents of a desk drawer or box of jewelry in an estate sale. While we may not know about the circumstances that brought the key to an online auction, there is greater certainty about its future. Karl Fattig, secretary-treasurer of Phi Beta Kappa at Bowdoin, entered into the last-minute, nerve-wracking online auction and, thanks to an anonymous gift from a member of the Bowdoin faculty, had the winning bid. J. Arnett Mitchell’s Phi Beta Kappa key has returned to his alma mater in time for the 100th anniversary of his graduation in 2012. As the sight of his Phi Beta Kappa key inspired students at the Champion Avenue Middle School for 38 years, so may its story and the life of its owner teach us about the joy of achievement.


With Best Wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations


  1. Timothy Warren says:

    Hw do I print John’s article?? Tim

  2. Lyman Cousens says:

    Great story! Thanks John,
    Lyman ’61

  3. Merton G. Henry says:

    What a great story!

  4. Robert E. Ginn '59 says:

    Wonderful and inspirational, John.

    Thank you for sharing your writing talents.

  5. Peter Small says:

    Very nice John.

  6. John: a fantastic essay with a fantastic conclusion. Will the key be on display somewhere, perhaps at H-L Library, sometime soon?

  7. All I can say is incredible!…and John, outstanding work.

  8. John E. Simonds says:

    Thanks for another remarkable effort, John…(Working in Columbus in 1959, this alumnus regrets not having been aware of J. Arnett Mitchell’s presence or contributions to that city’s schools.) js

  9. John Ottaviani '79 says:

    Excellent research and detective work, John!

  10. Howard Levin, 1954 says:

    Thank you for the inspiring story. I was lucky to have your father as my freshman English teacher. I wish I could have written as compelling a story for him as you did for all of us.

  11. Keith Halloran '77 says:

    What an awesome story !!! Now where is my key again … ??? LOL !!!

  12. Phil Hansen '64 says:

    What a wonderful story!As one of the organizers of the Bowdoin-Morehouse exchange of the mid-1960s, I have been especially interested in recent stories here and in Bowdoin Magazine about African-Americans at Bowdoin. Thank you!

  13. Ken Carpenter '58 says:

    Beautifully researched and written!

  14. Stephen Rule '58 says:

    A tale to reinvigorate one’s flagging faith in people! :-)

    So glad that there are eagle-eyed folks out there watching out for opportunities to accomplish such wonderful feats!

  15. Anne Ireland says:

    Wonderful story John. Beautifully written, as usual.

  16. Al DeMoya '72 says:

    John, where do you find these “treasures”? That was a wonderful story with a fabulous ending. I felt as I was reading that the key belonged at Bowdoin, and I’m happy it’s there now.

  17. Dr. Adah Ward Randolph says:

    Dear John;

    Thank you for the article on J. Arnett Mitchell. There is so much to his life and what he was able to accomplish, particularly given the period in which he lived. Yet, Mitchell stood for excellence. It is what his family demanded and what his mentor, Bouchet instilled in him. Also, Mitchell was touched and mentored by others such as Booker T. Washington, and Kelly Miller whom he met while a student at Howard University before he went to Bowdoin. Miller wrote a letter of recommendation for him. In all, Mitchell has left an exemplary tradition of African American educational success, and in addition to his family, Bowdoin played a large role in his success. I would love to one day share my research on him with students at Bowdoin. John all the best in your endeavors.

    Respectfully, Adah Ward Randolph, Ph.D.
    Ohio University

  18. Kristie Alana Mitchell says:

    I am one of 5 remaining Grandchildren of J. Arnett Mitchell and Daughter of son John A. Mitchell. We have been searching for all of these missing links, thank you so very much. If anyone else has any information regarding my grandfather, please feel free to contact me. THANK YOU!

  19. Sherry J. Mitchell-Potts,MA, Phi kappa Phi says:

    Dear John; Thank you so much for the article on my Grandfather, J. Arnett Mitchell. My sisters and I have been looking into our family history just recently and have been searching for information to fill in the gaps of the oral traditions which we have. I remember him and was touched personally by his requirements for excellence because it was instilled in us through him and our father Dr. John Arnett Mitchell Jr., his oldest son. It seems that the scholarship and dedication he demanded have been passed to the third and fourth generations of Mitchells. I am are proud to have called him Papa. My thanks also to Bowboin and Dr. Randolph. Sincerely, Sherry J. Mitchell Potts, MA

  20. Judith Hatter Zock 'nee Mitchell says:

    Thank you John, for this wonderful article regarding my Grandfather, John Arnett Mitchell. I too look forward to hearing from anyone who is able to share more stories about Papa with my sisters and I.

  21. Ramona Jackson says:

    Thank you John for this great article! John Arnett Mitchell was my great-grandfather and I really appreciate you sharing this history. I’ve alrways heard many stories about “Papa” from my grandmother (his daughter Faith) but this has helped fill in so many gaps. You have truly given our family a wonderful gift!

  22. Philip Murray says:

    Hi, I am writing a writing a biography on John Arnett Mitchell and was wondering if you could help me out with my research. This is a great article you made, and I would love to know any more information about Mitchell.

  23. Kathryn Jones says:

    To John Cross: John Arnett Mitchell was my great grandfather. I am impressed that you knew he had four children instead of three. I am the descendent of the first child. I am writing a book about the women in my and was wondering what else you know about his first wife. Please email me and I will give more detail.. Thank you.

    Philip Murray: As I stated, I’m writing a book too. I’d be interested in what you’ve learned so far and if you have any information on his first wife. Again, please email me and I will give more detail. Thank you.

  24. Steve Doutt says:

    Hi to Kathryn Jones and Philip Murray: my spouse is Kris Mitchell, John A. Mitchell’s grand daughter. She has been doing research and will share information. Please let us know. Steve Doutt

  25. John Arnett Mitchell, III, MD says:

    Thank you all for your comments and Mr. Cross for such an accurate and personal story on my grandfather who name was passed on to me.

    Many of the stories and connections have been lost in such a great man at the time where minorties were not represented in education and he may be THE leader of charter and minority awareness and cultural differences in America.

    I have many stories from my father , John A. Mitchell, MD, before he passed. He was the only son of John Sr. I also have the actual key(which apparantly is a duplicate) that he wore at Champion Middle School which was passed to me by his son.

    God giving, he now has a 4th generation of sons, John A Mitchell Jr and Sean A Mitchell that live in Chicago and live under the same rules and discipline that John Sr has placed through our family. They are both doing very well and are acutely aware of the history and efforts that my father and grandfather have done for them to path the way for all minorties in education. My father, a chest surgeon, took this passion into medicine and developed and built medical education platforms with Charles Drew and Martin Luther King in the underprivlidged area of Los angles and Watts at Drew Medical School and UCLA.

    We are planning a visit to Gallopolis, OH where John Sr was born and plan on researching more about his parents which I am VERY interested in going one step back to find out how he was raised in such a manner. Rumor has it, his mother was the tyrant in that relationship…. more to come.

    If anyone feels the need to know more about what I know about our family please contact me at cardiacgas@hotmail.com 3123997956.

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