By Mike Gutwig
SPRINGFIELD, Ore.—More than 30 years after retiring, a working man who found success as a union welder is giving back in a very big way. Duke Mitchell — a member of United Association of Plumbers and Fitters Local 290 — gave $500,000 to the Shriners Hospitals for Children. The donation was made Nov. 5 at Local 290’s Springfield training center, with several retired union brothers in attendance.
“This is not a common occurrence,” said Kathy Park, director of development for Shriners Hospital-Portland. Shriners Hospitals for Children is an international nonprofit network of medical centers that specializes in care for children with orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries, and cleft lip and palate, regardless of the families’ ability to pay. Care is provided for newborns up to age 18. The Portland medical center boasts the largest team of pediatric orthopedic surgeons (12) in the Pacific Northwest.
Mitchell, 96, isn’t a Shriner, and he wasn’t familiar with the organization until a few months ago, when he saw a story about all the good things they do for children.
Mitchell said he and his wife of 72 years, Lucy Marie, often talked about donating some of their money to a good cause, but they hadn’t decided on anything when she died in 2014.
After learning about the Shriners, Mitchell knew immediately where the money should go.
“My God, that’s the greatest thing in the world you could do, — helping those little kids,” he said. “What could you do that would be any greater than that? Nothing! Nothing!”
Duke Mitchell grew up in poverty, living out of a car in Texas during the Great Depression with 11 sisters and his mother and father.
This is the greatest investment I’ve ever made in my life. Helping those little kids get a start in life. I don’t think you can do anything better than that.” — Duke Mitchell
He landed in Springfield in 1960, where he joined what then was Fitters Local 481 (plumbers and fitters locals merged to form United Association Local 290 in July 1985). Mitchell served on the union’s Executive Board and on numerous volunteer committees, including bargaining committees.
“Joining the union was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Mitchell said.
Working under a union contract meant good benefits, a pension, job security, and good wages, Mitchell said — enough to take care of his wife and three children, with enough left over to invest in the stock market.
“I invested wisely … not because I was smart, but because I was lucky,” he told the Labor Press. “I became a millionaire while I was still working, and I didn’t even know it!”
Mitchell’s daughter, Sharon Stiener of North Carolina, said she and Mitchell’s other family members are glad he decided to give some of his money to Shriners.
“My dad has taken care of his family,” Stiener said. “I think it’s going to a good cause.”
Stiener said her father made a lot of friends through the union.
“Many of them are gone now, but it’s wonderful to see this turnout,” she said at the check presentation ceremony. Among the union brothers at the ceremony was retired business agent Mike Carmickle, the first person Mitchell called after deciding where to donate his money.
Mitchell related the conversation. “I told Mike ‘I’ve got a little money here that I’d like to get rid of. Can you come over and help me with that?’ He said ‘Sure, I’ll be right over.’ ”
The two met the next day at the Springfield training center.
“When Duke told me what he wanted to do, it was mind boggling,” Carmickle said. “I don’t know who was bawling more, me or him.”
A plaque acknowledging Mitchell’s donation will hang in the Shriners Hospital in Portland.
“This is the greatest investment I’ve ever made in my life,” said Mitchell, who lives in a trailer park in Springfield. “Helping those little kids get a start in life. I don’t think you can do anything better than that.”