By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published August 16, 2012
The generous bequest of Joseph Mitchell is perhaps the most public moment of a life lived very privately.
Two Cathedral of Christ the King parishioners spoke of their memories of him.
Hamilton Smith, his third cousin by marriage, grew up alongside him. They were in the same class at Christ the King School and initially at Marist School. In those days, Marist was a military academy for boys near Sacred Heart Church in downtown Atlanta. The atmosphere was rough for Mitchell, Smith said, and Joe left and went to Grady High School and later to the University of Georgia and Georgetown University.
Smith said Joe, like his brother, Gene, and their father, Stephens Mitchell, was intelligent, very well read and different from his peers. Joe had lifelong health problems.
“Steve Mitchell was a preeminent real estate lawyer. Steve was an extremely cerebral, intelligent, almost quaint person. He read all the time,” Smith said. “Joe was a very sensitive, almost sweet guy. … He was my playmate. Joe Mitchell could tell you who wrote any book ever written in Western civilization.”
At the time the Stephens Mitchell family lived “in a beautiful antebellum mansion” in the Pershing Point section of Atlanta. Smith remembers going to play on Saturdays in the oversized rooms of the home and to the movies on 10th Street with his cousin.
“We had great imaginations,” he said. “He was a normal kid, quiet. We had a lot of fun together.”
As they went to high school, “Joe was always light years away from the rest of us kids. … Joe had read Karl Marx. He’d go into these long dissertations on socialism. He was fascinating like that.”
“It was a very interesting family. They were really quaint in many ways,” he said.
Stephens Mitchell was among the most prominent Catholics in Atlanta at the time, Smith said, and devout in his faith. Joe never married and eventually lived in Buckhead with his father in the ranch home he left to the Atlanta Archdiocese.
He loved classical music, traveled with caregivers, and always gave a Christmas party at his home where he was a quiet observer.
Smith, music director at the Cathedral parish, said the one story he was told as a boy about Margaret Mitchell was by his parents. One day his father took his mother to meet Margaret, at the apartment where she lived with her husband, John Marsh.
“Margaret had been sick with the flu. She had all these papers strewn all over the bed,” his parents said. Smith’s mother asked what the papers were. Margaret said, “Oh, it’s really nothing. It’s some of my recollections of the South and I’m only doing it because my husband wants me to.”
When Joe Mitchell talked about his aunt, “he talked about the Sunday lunches they would have at that old house on Peachtree Street. She was interested in history and they would talk about history,” Smith said.
Mark Wilkiemeyer, a retired physician who is a Stephen’s minister at the Cathedral, a ministry of support to parishioners, visited for eight years once a week with Joe Mitchell, bringing him Communion and talking about writers and poets with him.
Mitchell was very interested in literature and Wilkiemeyer brought readings from Thomas Merton and tapes of 18th, 19th and 20th century writers.
“Then we would have a discussion after we listened to the tapes,” he said.
He said Mitchell was “a very thoughtful man. He would be complex. There wasn’t anything superficial about him. He was very intense about his faith.”
When he was younger he had been to pilgrimage sites like Fatima, Lourdes and the Holy Land, as well as the South Pacific, Wilkiemeyer said. “He had been pretty much all over the world.”
He would also go to the Cathedral for Mass or, for a while, to the chapel at Saint Joseph’s Hospital.
“He was a very gentle man. He never said an unkind thing about another person,” Wilkiemeyer said.
They related well to each other because for one thing, the visitor was comfortable “with people who don’t have much to say. Sometimes silence is good.”
Smith said of his cousin, “I think Joe struggled a lot with interactions with people.”
“The church was the constant, predictable, embracing, reliable entity in his life. I think that’s it. That was his true rock of Gibraltar.”