A builder of men: Mitchell inducted by TSSAA
Lewisburg’s William J. Mitchell’s posthumous induction into the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association’s Hall of Fame on April 1 at the Embassy Suites in Murfreesboro is the final brick in a foundation of a true life legend that will last forever.
TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress, a lifelong family friend, Columbia Central High School graduate, and first African American in his position with the TSSAA said, “Mr. Mitchell was a role model without a doubt, an icon in the community and he is very well missed, but he left a legacy for all of us to follow and we are just proud that we are able to induct him into the Hall of Fame.”
Mitchell was a TSSAA sports official for over 50 years, making the calls on the basketball courts and the football fields all over the state, including eight football playoff games.
“I’ve been very close to the family for years, I knew the family when I was playing in high school in Columbia because they had such a great girls basketball team at that time with his daughter Jerrie (Henry) and it ended up where Jerrie, the Williams sisters (Linda and Barbara) and I all went to Belmont together,” Childress said. “I was very hurt when I found out a week after he was buried that he had actually passed away, but it is a tremendous honor, we all thought the world of him and it is very much deserved.”
Mitchell, known to most as Willie J., owned a construction company for over 35 years, but his true profession was a tireless builder a men, including his late son William Robert Mitchell, known as “Tennessee Mitch”, who was a Grambling State University football player under College Football Hall of Fame coach Eddie Robinson and was the first Lewisburg native to play in the National Football League where he went on to play for three years with the Washington Redskins as a walk-on.
Known as a man of tireless energy and dedication to the community, Willie J. Mitchell coached and sponsored baseball, softball and basketball teams for much of his adult life and it was there that he etched his mark into the lives of all he touched.
Mitchell, born and raised in Cornersville, was a scout before there were scouts and is known to have helped as many as 15-to-18 athletes garner college scholarships through his connections with Robinson, including one that was very special to him when he called upon Robinson about looking at his great nephew Jeffrey Anderson, a former Marshall County High School football player and 1983 MCHS graduate.
Robinson agreed to take a look at him and Mitchell and his late wife Evelyn drove Anderson to Louisiana and told him they would only be making the trip back to Louisiana to see him play and not from quitting.
Anderson heeded Mitchell’s advice and after a red shirt freshmen year, he went on to play the remainder of his college years, continued his studies the next four years and graduated with a business degree.
“That was one of the things he was most proud of and vice-versa with Jeff,” Henry said. “I’m very proud of my dad being inducted into the Hall of Fame, I know I’m his daughter, but I saw the things he did, he was color blind, he just did anything for anyone who wanted to achieve.”
Mitchell did the same many times and was a counsel and mentor to the many young men and women he guided and touched throughout his life.
“He never gave up on a kid, without a doubt” Childress said. “It’s been proven if students participate in athletics---they stay in school, have a reason to go to school, they do better with attendance, do not dropout, score better on the ACT and SAT and then go to college and come back and be better citizens in the community and that was what Mr. Mitchell was all about.”
Another of Mitchell’s endeavors and service to the community was serving on the Lewisburg City Council for many years where his contributions and work ethic was closely studied and modeled by close friend and current Marshall County Commissioner Dean Delk who said about the upcoming induction, “It’s terrific, well-deserved and if you define the definition of Hall of Fame there would be a picture of Mr. Mitchell.”
“He epitomized everything good about life whether you were an adult or a youth, he was just always upbeat, a gentleman and just a great person to be around, he just made you feel good all the time.”
Mitchell and Delk, both avid golfers, played the links together at the Ewell Butler Golf Course at the Lewisburg Recreation Center and at the Buford Ellington tract inside Henry Horton State Park.
“I remember, it was around 1966 or 1967 when I first met Willie I was at Henry Horton Park and he owned a construction company and he would ride through Chapel Hill coming down from Nashville in the afternoon in his blue pickup truck and stop in at Henry Horton and play golf with me, Charlie Kerr, and Leon Reed and we would get on a golf cart and play and I can’t count the number of times we did that throughout the years.”
Delk went on the say, “He would have all the concrete and stuff on his hands from his hard work during the day, roll up his pants and we would play and all the while, he was helping me, he was just an inspiration and if you pattern yourself after Mr. Willie you will have a good life and be very well-respected, he was just a good friend.”
Henry, who went on to become an All-American basketball player at Belmont and later the coach of the Tigerettes said about her dad’s religious devotion, “He was a Christian man and really relied on his Christianity, he talked all time about staying in prayer.”
“He would say to me as if I wasn’t already doing these things, ‘Now Jerrie you wake up in the morning praying and you go to bed praying and don’t pray just pray for your family, you pray for everyone and don’t pray surface prayers,’ and I would say OK daddy, that was just as unselfish as he was.”