BRUNSWICK, Maine — No one who knows anything about former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell Jr. would associate him with the words “uncertain,” “insecure,” “nervous” and “naive,” but those were the emotions that consumed him when he first stepped foot on the Bowdoin College campus six decades ago.

Between then and now, Mitchell has established himself as one of the great political leaders of our time, been a go-to guy for presidents working to create peace in northern Ireland and the Middle East, stormed the business world as chairman of Walt Disney Co. and left his mark in professional sports as board member for the Boston Red Sox and a champion against performance-enhancing drugs.

Despite those accomplishments and many more, at age 16 he was the son of immigrant parents in Waterville who struggled to support their five children. College was out of the question until his father’s former boss set up an appointment for Mitchell with Bowdoin’s admissions department. With no money for bus fare, he hitchhiked to the interview.

“I’ve had a lot of luck in my life,” Mitchell said Monday night to an adoring capacity crowd in Bowdoin’s Pickard Theater. “One of the luckiest days of all was when I walked onto the Bowdoin College campus. I can still recall my feeling of awe. I was very nervous. I felt out of place.”

Mitchell, 78, Bowdoin Class of 1954, visited his alma mater to launch the school’s George J. Mitchell Oral History Project, a collection of nearly 200 interviews conducted over the past three years with people who have watched Mitchell’s rise from a scrawny Waterville kid overshadowed by the athletic heroics of his brothers to the U.S. Senate majority leader.

With whimsy and humility, Mitchell used his chance at the podium to make a case that investments in higher education pay for themselves in tangible and considerable ways, and pointed to himself as living proof.

“Over the long term, education pays off,” said Mitchell. “Financial assistance has become crucial to higher education today … and success in human affairs will be based in knowledge.”

According to Mitchell, a person with a four-year college degree not only earns more for himself and his family, but pays $171,000 more in income taxes than a high school graduate. The college graduate also costs the government some $10,000 less in services.

Besides the financial benefits, Mitchell said the college and university system is and increasingly will be the glue that holds American society together as a growing bombardment of information from more and more sources continues to fracture it into smaller and smaller fragments.

“Higher education is the only institution in our society which has the continuing purpose of constantly re-examining our society’s assumptions,” he said. “The United States is a nation not only when a hurricane or a bombing or a sensational trial occurs. Reasoning skills is the most important contribution of higher education.”

As he has proven in countless other settings for countless other causes, Mitchell represents much more than talk when it comes to sending students to college. Since 1995, his Portland-based Mitchell Institute has granted $5,000 scholarships to a graduating senior from every high school in Maine every year. All told, the institute has given $8.2 million to more than 1,800 Maine students. Twenty-three Mitchell Scholars are attending Bowdoin College this year.

“Beyond my family, this scholarship program is the most important thing in my life,” he said. “In America no one should be guaranteed success, but a willingness to work will carry you through.”

To listen to interviews from the George J. Mitchell Oral History Project, visit the Bowdoin College also houses the George J. Mitchell papers, a collection of more than a million documents, recordings and files associated with Mitchell’s career.


Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.