Harry Mitchell passed away in 2016 at the age of 94, leaving behind a legacy that spanned 63 years and touched countless clients, judges, attorneys and others.
With kind words evoking fond memories, attorneys, judges and other judicial staff from throughout the area gathered with family members for a special session Wednesday, Sept. 6, to honor longtime Palmyra attorney and judge Harry Mitchell.
Mitchell passed away in 2016 at the age of 94, leaving behind a legacy that spanned 63 years and touched countless clients, judges, attorneys and others. He was remembered as a mentor, a tireless attorney who researched each case with vigor, a fair judge and a man who let his faith in God assist his efforts in all the trials, trust matters, real estate purchases, civil cases and other issues he worked on. Each judge and attorney who spoke during the special session recalled how Mitchell impacted their careers, with Lafayette County Associate Circuit Judge Russell Kruse submitting a request to commemorate Mitchell in the Tenth Judicial Circuit Court with a formal resolution, sharing sympathy with his family members and giving a copy to them.
“Harry was as much a second father as a law partner, and as I told Harry the last time, thank you for the opportunities he’s given me,” Kruse said. “I know now I would not be judge today were it not for the lessons I learned and Harry’s example.”
Kruse said that whether he was representing a client, serving as prosecuting attorney, city attorney or as Marion County’s Magistrate Judge, Mitchell treated everyone fairly as God’s children. Mitchell served as prosecuting attorney from 1952 to 1960, working at least three murder trials during that time.
One of the trials involved a stabbing death in a dilapidated tavern in Hannibal’s Wedge district. Mitchell pursued the conviction and secured witnesses with determination to seek justice for the deceased black man and for his family, Kruse said.
“In a pre-Civil Rights environment, Harry broke through cultural barriers by encouraging enough reluctant witnesses to testify about the actual event, so that justice could be given for that slain man and for his family,” Kruse said. “In a time in history when a black man’s life might not actually have mattered much to many, Harry persevered for that man’s justice.”
Kruse said the conviction in that case was just one example of how Mitchell treated others with respect and humility. He stepped down as prosecuting attorney to serve as assistant prosecuting attorney with Harold Volkmer, and performed a similar action when he asked his partner, Charles Hickman, if he wanted to run for Palmyra City Attorney, because he said he was tired of filing for election for the position. Hickman became City Attorney, and has held the position for 38 years.
During his response to the resolution, Hickman said that Mitchell wore leg braces and used crutches due to polio, but nothing slowed down his professionalism, dedication, love for his family and ability to mentor to fellow attorneys and judges.
“To me, Harry’s crutches seemed literally and figuratively invisible,” Hickman said.
Hickman told about how Mitchell came to Palmyra initially to purchase law books after his graduation from the University of Missouri Law School in 1945. He decided to stay in Palmyra, purchasing the law practice of Gray Snyder — secretary Margaret Fleming stayed on and worked with Mitchell for more than 40 years, a part of the team when Hickman joined in 1977.
He said Mitchell served as Magistrate Judge in Marion County — the youngest judge in the county’s history. Hickman practiced law with Mitchell until 1983, following Mitchell to various cases and often asking him questions. He recalled Mitchell’s patience with each inquiry, describing him as “a blue-collar attorney” who could relate to anyone.
“Those first six years years of my career as an associate of Harry Mitchell helped shape my entire career for over 40 years,” Hickman said. “He really mentored me on how to practice law by his example.”
Branson Wood III voiced similar sentiments about Mitchell’s approach to law and helping others.
Wood said he worked with Mitchell and against him as an attorney, gaining admiration for his “professionalism, his work ethic and his lawyering skills.” He said Mitchell was one of the few attorneys he could always turn to with a question.
Wood noted what his colleagues also observed — Mitchell researched everything carefully from a library that rivaled those in larger law firms. Wood said that Mitchell never shied away from taking a risk if it might result in justice as an attorney, noting he was a “fierce and fearless competitor.”
Tenth Circuit Presiding Judge Rachel Bringer Shepherd thanked everyone who organized and joined the special session — including the Tenth Circuit Bar Association who provided cake and punch — for honoring a man’s legacy that impacted so many people in the area. Mitchell’s wife, Ann, said the family cherished the session and all of the attorneys, judges and staff members who gathered to celebrate her late husband’s life.
“It certainly was an honor for Harry and for all of our family,” Ann Mitchell said. “We appreciate it so much. They had such wonderful testimonials that brought back a lot of a good memories for us.”
Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org