At the Links of Pine Hill Golf Course in South Memphis, the brotherhood of the Melrose High School Class of ’63 recently saluted Eldridge “Pete” Mitchell, a mentor who helped them transition from boys to men.
Mitchell – founder of the Pete Mitchell and Associates Insurance agency, a star athlete at Melrose and later a trailblazing football coach at Orange Mound’s beloved high school – did not make it; he was suffering from an extended illness.
On Friday (Sept. 17), Mitchell, the first African American hired as an assistant football coach at Memphis State University (now University of Memphis), died at his home. He was 87.
The Melrose brotherhood’s salute included a $3,400 donation to Restoration House Boxing Academy, which Mitchell founded in 2014. Retired Navy Lt. Commander Israel Johnson helped pull together the tribute for Mitchell, the commanding figure he looked up to in his homeroom class. Over the years, they kept in frequent touch.
Andrew Rosser, Melrose’s class of ’63 president, made the check presentation.
“He was my high school science teacher and later physical education teacher,” said Rosser. “It was a great time just being in his environment. He was full of wit, wisdom and knowledge. … I admire the things he is doing for the city, especially the inner-city youth. …”
Prior to the tournament’s tee-off, Randy Wade, a Carver High School graduate and a retired Shelby County Sheriff’s Office Administrator, drummed up support for Mitchell’s boxing academy.
“I just got out of the hospital for brain surgery,” said Wade, “but … I told my wife to get me out here. I wouldn’t miss this for nothing because I’ve always helped Pete. … I put two teams in (the tournament). … I used to get out with Pete, run with the boys (boxers) training them …”
Ike Griffith, director of the City of Memphis’ Office of Youth Services, accepted the brotherhood’s donation on behalf of Mitchell. Collaborators on the Boxing at the Pipkin series, which debuted in 2018, the two recently spearheaded the return of the Mid-South Golden Gloves boxing tournament to Memphis after a 50-year absence following a 35-year run.
“He was a mentor to me, a dad and a best friend,” said Griffith, “who really cared about the welfare and well-being of our young people, and he did that through the sport of boxing. Because boxing taught discipline, respect and he said that’s what children need more of today as they transition into adulthood.”
Mitchell boxed in high school when it was a recognized sport. When CDA Security founder Clift Dates approached him a couple of years ago about developing a boxing team that could represent the city at regional, national and international levels, Mitchell said, “I’m all in with that.”
Elaborating in a letter pitching the first Boxing at the Pipkin event, Mitchell wrote, “The participation side of boxing is not for everyone. I know that. I’ve competed inside the ropes, taken some lumps and delivered enough of my own to have earned multiple amateur championships.”
Restoration House Boxing Academy, he continued, has drawn “a stream of young men and young women and given me a chance to share some of the many life lessons I learned as an amateur boxer and while coaching professionals. …
“There are many young people out there who can get past the anger that tends to engulf them if we can make something attractive to them. The more we expose boxing, the more kids we’re going to get in. We’ve just got to find them.”
So, when Mitchell reached out to former Mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton, who boxed in the Golden Gloves when segregation was the order of the day, he found a long-time supporter willing to help with Mitchell’s dream of returning the Mid-South Golden Gloves to Memphis.
“Boxing contributed to our development as boys to men,” said Herenton. “That’s how I learned to become competitive, have good self-esteem. … Pete has zeal for this stuff (amateur boxing). … I hope it works. I’m going to help him promote it.”
Dates, who himself recently shared that he is terminally ill, said Mitchell checked on him regularly. Their friendship dates back to Mitchell’s coaching days at Melrose.
“He was such a great guy … with a great heart, great spirit, great teacher, great coach, great everything,” said Dates.
One of nine children, his parents transitioned from Mississippi, settling in Orange Mound. Looking back on those segregated times and limited opportunities, Mitchell once said, “We had to create our own dreams … our own roads.”
At Melrose, Mitchell played football, basketball, ran track and boxed. He guided the Golden Wildcats’ football program from 1956 to 1969. Two years later, he was hired as an assistant coach at Memphis State.
In column about how sports helped integrate Memphis, the Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr. noted Mitchell’s contributions. “In addition to coaching assignments, Mitchell was also a scout and recruiter of Black football players throughout the Mid-South. Pete Mitchell’s success was unprecedented.”
Mitchell started his insurance agency in 1975, providing athletic and student accident insurance to school systems in Memphis and surrounding areas. The agency now provides a full range of products and services for individuals and businesses.
Mitchell and his wife, Sybil Mitchell, have five children. Robert Mitchell, the Mitchell’s youngest child, said Mitchell was the most generous of fathers.
“My dad would say, ‘You may not have everything you want, but I’ll make sure you have everything you need,’” recalled Robert Mitchell.
“But he was wrong. He gave us everything we needed and wanted.”
Final arrangements are pending. M.J. Edwards and Sons Funeral Home, 1165 Airways Blvd., has charge.
(Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell contributed to this story.)