NEW PORT RICHEY — Jim and Dorothy Mitchell once owned thousands of wild acres in Pasco County, just north of the Pinellas line. He herded cattle with his men, tough and handsome in the saddle. She raised three kids, kept the books, served the community for 20 years on the School Board.
Now, old and frail, they found themselves at HPH Marliere Hospice Care Center in New Port Richey, separated by a wall. Dorothy, 82, had never fully recovered from a freak automobile accident at their ranch in 2007; Jim, 89, suffered from a number of ailments and, as his son Dewey said, "just wore out."
With the end near for both, family members gathered at the hospice on Saturday. Dorothy lay asleep in her room, unresponsive. At 3 p.m., workers and family went to the room next door and wheeled Jim to Dorothy's room. He held her hand and whispered to her, "I love you." After 63 years of marriage, this would be their final hour together.
Dorothy Mitchell died at 10:55 a.m. Sunday (Oct. 31, 2010).
"I think Mom could hear him," said Dewey, a widely known Realtor who earned a spot on the 1984 U.S. Olympic judo team and was a star football player at the University of Alabama. "It was poignant; the end of a wonderful love story."
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Dorothy Schluter was born at Mound Park Hospital (now Bayfront) in St. Petersburg, daughter of a civil engineer and homemaker. She graduated from St. Petersburg High in 1946, enrolled at the local junior college and told friends she intended to marry a cowboy. Then she met Jim Mitchell.
Long before Pasco became a destination for retirees, the Mitchells worked their ranch. Jim could ride for miles without seeing another person — hard to imagine these days, as much of the ranch is now known as the sprawling community of Trinity.
Jim Jr., Dewey and Mary came along. And as they grew up, "nobody was more active in educating their children than Jim and Dorothy," recalled Tom Weightman, who served as Pasco's superintendent of schools from 1974 to 1996.
In 1978, a group of local Democrats approached Jim to run for School Board. He instead volunteered his wife. Dorothy agreed and helped guide the district through a 20-year period in which the student population doubled. She also served on the CARES board for seniors, the Salvation Army and the Boys & Girls Club.
"She was a great board member," Weightman said. "She wasn't one to get a packet and just assume everything was all right. She was very meticulous in studying the information — right down to misspellings. With her, kids always came first."
Her own children thrived, but in 2006 Jim Jr. died after an illness at 56. Popular in the local arts and theater community, he collected antiques and automobiles, including a vintage 1983 turquoise Mercedes-Benz. After his death, his parents couldn't bear to sell the car, so they kept it in perfect condition in a garage near the house.
On the morning of Aug. 5, 2007, Dorothy went to clean the car and backed it out of the garage. A rigid floor mat jammed against the gas pedal, sending the Mercedes speeding backward. It smashed into an oak tree. Dorothy suffered brain damage, among other injuries.
Her daughter, Mary Avery, came home to care for her parents. "We were fortunate to have so many people who cared for them and loved them," Dewey Mitchell said.
Those people and hundreds more will gather for a funeral this week, although arrangements were still pending on Monday.
The Mitchells' church, Generations Christian, is on their old ranch property. So is the cemetery, Trinity Memorial Gardens. Nearby are hundreds of new homes and commercial centers, a hospital under construction, a high school named for the Mitchells — all where cattle roamed free just a short time ago.
"We've known this day would come," said Dewey, who dreads the next call from the hospice. "Mom fought hard but just got tired of it. She just said, 'Enough.' She's out of pain now, and we're grateful for that. But it sure hurts."
Contact Bill Stevens at email@example.com or (727) 869-6250.