Jim Mitchell Jr. appreciated the finer things in life — antiques, art, automobiles. And when he died after an illness in 2006 at only 56, his parents didn't have the heart to part with his classic 1983 turquoise two-seater Mercedes-Benz.
He would have been pleased at the care they gave this car. They had it waxed and detailed, but somehow a bird got in the garage and targeted the Mercedes.
Dorothy Mitchell felt great that day, Aug. 5, 2007. The retired 20-year veteran of the Pasco County School Board was 78, but her doctor said she seemed more like 60, active and social with a complexion of sweet cream. It wouldn't take a minute to clean off the car, chase off the bird. She climbed behind the wheel and adjusted the seat. A rigid floor mat apparently shifted, so when she stepped on the brake, it depressed the gas pedal.
The engine raced, the tires squealed as the car shot backward for almost 100 yards until it slammed into an oak tree. Dorothy's husband Jim, a rugged icon rancher who worked cattle most of his life on thousands of acres now known as Trinity, happened to be staring out the window and witnessed the turquoise blur. He called his son, Dewey.
"Something has happened to your mother!''
You can see Dewey and Becky Mitchell's house on the other side of a cypress swamp that would have claimed the Mercedes had it not been for the oak tree. He was on the scene in a few minutes.
"The back of the car looked like it had been sawed off,'' Dewey said. "I thought she was gone, but then I could see her breathing. Her arms were obviously broken, and I was afraid to move her.''
Within minutes, paramedics landed by helicopter in the Mitchell Ranch pasture and transported Dorothy to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. She suffered numerous broken bones and, most serious, a brain injury. Two doctors told the family she probably would die. She spent a month and a half in a coma.
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Several months ago, I asked Dewey if it would be okay to visit with his folks. So many people have admired them over the years for their philanthropy and public service, and their information about Dorothy had been limited to a few paragraphs in the paper after the accident.
But Dorothy wasn't ready then. Jim, 87, had his health issues, too, including a blood clot that kept him in the hospital for two months.
Friday afternoon, they welcomed me into their home.
Dorothy now uses a wheelchair but religiously attends physical therapy sessions. By coincidence, most of her therapy has been at the rehabilitative center at Morton Plant North Bay Hospital in New Port Richey that bears the Mitchells' name because of their financial contributions in the 1990s.
After the accident, Dewey's sister, Mary Avery, and her husband Jim moved down from Georgia to help with her care. Gene and Lisa Obenreder, longtime family friends, live at the house during the week and handle much of the care and business matters.
"We are so fortunate to have family and friends who gathered around mom and nurtured and loved her,'' said Dewey, owner of Prudential Tropical Realty, a former star player at Alabama for Paul "Bear'' Bryant and a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic judo team. "We almost lost her.''
In short answers and gestures, Dorothy was sympathetic to School Board members who have to cut millions of dollars because of the sour economy. When she took office in 1978, Pasco had 23,075 students; today there 63,000. Much of that growth has occurred in the southwest corner of the county, where in 2000 J.W. Mitchell High School opened in a pasture where Jim and his brother Jack once spent all their time on horseback.
"I miss riding my horse,'' said Jim, who has always struck me as a Ben Cartwright kind of man. Only a few years ago, he was still working his cattle. A cow in distress because it couldn't deliver a calf reacted badly to Jim's coaxing and head-butted him over a fence. He suffered a broken ankle and a neck injury, but still spent several more hours working.
Over 80, and still tough as nails.
Today he and Dorothy occasionally get around in motorized chairs they nicknamed "Scooter'' and "Trigger.'' She watches old reruns of the Andy Griffith Show and Bill Cosby and laughs hard — too hard, sometimes, because it makes her cough.
Her family has chronicled her progress in a photo album and appreciates her courage and resolve.
Says her daughter, Mary: "She is the sweetest, most amazing woman I know. She has handled all of this with such grace, you just can't believe it.''
It is my privilege to pass that on to you.