“It was partly a gift,” Gordon Mitchell said of his foray into genealogy in a May 12, 2012, Reminder article. “I was given an assignment in junior high school to research my family. I always loved history, and my grandfather had already traced his roots back seven generations.” Mitchell continued to pass on his own gifts of knowledge and resources until his death Jan. 7.
I was stunned to see the photo and obituary for Gordon Mitchell in the Jan. 9 Banner. After all, he’d just been to the office six days earlier, handing me documents far more priceless than the plain gray folder that held them.
Later, looking at that same folder, I shook my head, tottering between disbelief and heartache, knowing what the community had lost.
I met Gordon several years ago in the Michigan Room at the old library on Church Street across from the courthouse. As people do in a tiny room packed with yellowed clippings, random scrapbooks and old city directories, we exchanged stories of roadblocks and successes in our genealogy pursuits.
Our skills, however, were hardly comparable. I dabbled. Gordon, on the other hand, was a professional genealogist, hired not only by individuals curious about their family trees, but also by law offices seeking to settle obscure inheritance issues or determine the rightful owner of old stock certificates. He’d been sought to reconstruct historical events. He also worked over the course of two years researching Boston Tea Party descendants prior to the 2012 opening of a new museum in that Massachusetts city. Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time.
I’d occasionally see Gordon at the new library after I began working as copy editor at the paper. When local historian Esther Walton retired, this column just sort of fell into my hands. Previously called “From Time to Time,” the name was changed to “Turning Back the Pages,” to reflect that the columns are often reprints of articles compiled by Esther or others. Not always, however.
Sometimes, I come across a clipping in our archives or glimpse an old Banner story on microfilm at the library that warranted new attention, such as the Royal Coach company that built travel trailers in a factory now being eyed for new housing in Hastings. Anniversaries, such as 150 years since the Civil War or a century after World War I, seemed worthy of articles. But nothing as nicely summarized and packaged as Esther’s work existed for such topics.
Spurred by new discoveries or growing curiosity, and given a few spare minutes, I’ll see what I can find online, in our old files or on microfilm at the library. After weeks of such fragmented research, I will have collected enough material to complement or update the original clipping. Sometimes, though, tiny but important pieces are missing, no matter where I look.
Gordon was a safety net in such instances. He had assembled a huge, invaluable collection of information on local people and families. A few times each year, I’d email him, asking if, by chance, he had the missing date, mother’s maiden name, a middle initial or other bit of elusive information.
This week’s column was one such challenge. The first female probate judge in the state of Michigan should have been easy to research. She wasn’t. A lack of information on Ella Eggleston delayed this column. The best resource was an index – compiled in 2005 by Gordon Mitchell, no less – that included dates of Banner articles on Judge Eggleston. Still, holes remained, such as where she went to high school, whether she attended college and what year her divorce was finalized.
Gordon always came through, often providing more information than I’d requested. Responding to my questions regarding Judge Eggleston, he sent along information he’d found on a subscription genealogy site. He also suggested that her brother’s obituary might have one answer, directed me to a book at the library, and expressed the same bewilderment that more had not been written about this leading lady.
He followed that up with a visit to our office several days later to drop off the gray folder containing articles and documents he’d found. He might as well have given me a sack of gold. I was thrilled. He wasn’t expecting anything in return. He never did.
Over the years, he would bring in articles he came across and thought we might like to reprint. He also delivered spiral-bound collections he’d compiled – as resources for himself – but he kindly shared copies with the library and the Banner. That 2005 index of names he assembled from thousands of note cards compiled by Esther Walton is one such treasure. He also painstakingly indexed names from the 1918 Banner and gave us a copy of his records. That particular index was a tremendous help as I researched and wrote a series of articles on local men who died in World War I.
Gordon was a quiet, unassuming, generous gentleman. He’d spent 20 years in the U.S. Army, working in military intelligence as a linguist. He was fluent in German, Korean and Hungarian. He’d earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Later in life, he visited area nursing homes, playing music on the Omnichord, an electronic keyboard. He crafted pens with wooden bodies, each with its own story, giving many as gifts.
He could have bided his time at libraries in Kalamazoo, Battle Creek or even the state library in Lansing. Instead, he drove regularly from Hickory Corners to Hastings, sometimes delivering miscellaneous folders or spiral-bound treasures. He also graciously helped visitors or callers with research at the Hastings library.
A bachelor, he has no descendants, but he left volumes of information for future generations. As for me, right now, the most precious volume is the plain gray folder he handed to me days before he died. But I know it won’t be long before I will be reaching for one of the other resources Gordon so kindly shared. And years from now, others will come across his indexes at the Hastings library and feel like they’ve struck gold. Thank you, Gordon, from me and from unnamed future researchers.