Board president dies suddenly

Benton Harbor school board President Stephen Mitchell, pictured in May, died on Tuesday after a sudden illness. He was 71.

BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor school board President Stephen Mitchell died Tuesday after a sudden illness. He was 71.

“We are all in shock,” school board Secretary Patricia Rush said. “President Mitchell was a proud Tiger and was entirely devoted to Benton Harbor schools.”

Board Vice President Joseph Taylor said in an emailed statement that the board and community are grateful for Mitchell’s leadership and his many years of service with Benton Harbor Area Schools.

“We are heartbroken and our prayers are (with) the Mitchell family,” he said.

A special school board meeting to discuss board policies was canceled Tuesday, before the announcement of his death, due to Mitchell falling gravely ill. It has not been rescheduled.

Mitchell, a Benton Harbor native, took over as president on Jan. 1 and has guided the board through the chaos caused on May 24 when state officials first proposed closing Benton Harbor High School in 2020. Trustees have rejected any plans in which the high school could be closed and are currently working with state officials to create an advisory board to develop an operating plan to move the district forward.

Mitchell was first appointed to the school board in January 2015 to fill a vacancy. He ran unopposed for the seat in 2016.

He was a lifelong Tiger, having graduated from Benton Harbor High School in 1966. After going away to college, he returned to the city in 1974 to be the director of security for the school district. In 1988, he was promoted to director of operations and facilities, where he stayed until retiring in 2008.

Earlier this year while being interviewed for a story for The HP’s annual Spotlight edition, Mitchell said his favorite memory of growing up in Benton Harbor was being involved in sports. 

“I was an athlete most of my life,” he said. “Playing on the Benton Harbor Little League was an honor back then. We had some great teams. More importantly, probably, the kids that I grew up with, we’re still in contact with each other even today. But we started out as 6-year-olds.”

He was on the state championship basketball team in 1965 as a junior and was vice president of the school board when the team won state again in 2018.

He said watching the team win the championship brought back memories of riding the fire truck into town and of the gym being packed with supporters.

“It’s a great feeling,” he said.

Mitchell, the youngest of eight siblings, said growing up on North McCord Street in the 1950s and early 1960s was pretty idyllic, with neighbors knowing each other and the children of all colors playing together. 

“It was a great time. Downtown was bustling. I have some great memories,” he said.

Even though he retired, Mitchell never stopped working. He was still working as a driver three days a week at Signature Toyota.

Mitchell and his wife, Marlene Mitchell, were married in 1972.

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