HOWARD LAKE Faced with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, Howard Lake City Councilor Mike Mitchell recently looked back on a lifetime of service to communities and a whole lot of fun.
Mitchell’s health has prevented him from attending recent city council meetings.
While wintering in Florida with his wife, Val, he was treated for pneumonia, but didn’t feel much better.
Following a scary incident involving a fall and temporary blindness back in Minnesota, Mitchell learned he has cancer of the brain, lungs, liver and adrenal system.
His medical staff prognosticate that Mitchell may have a month to four to five months to live.
Originally, Mitchell set a goal for himself to live until September 1. He achieved it. His new goal is to survive until the end of 2017.
Although he’d like to get out of the house a little bit more, frequent visits from his health care team keep him inside.
He’s had some time to ruminate about things.
He has pondered how he would like to be remembered.
“I’d like to be thought of as a good Howard Lake High School athlete, and as someone dedicated to improving the quality of life for the citizens of Howard Lake,” Mitchell said.
“I’d like to think we’re making Howard Lake a better town to grow up in, and see that we have new residences and businesses for young people,” he said.
“I’d like to see things done right, although it might take two to three years to get it done,” Mitchell concluded. “I won’t be here to see it, but lots of little kids will.”
Mitchell was born in Litchfield, but has always been a Howard Lake guy through and through.
His family moved to town in 1941, while his father was serving in the Navy.
Mitchell, now a septuagenarian, describes his childhood in Howard Lake as “perfect.”
Several childhood incidents made it into print when Mitchell wrote the occasional column for the Howard Lake Herald back in the 1990s.
Mitchell shared a story about the boat he and a childhood friend attempted to save over the course of a couple summers.
Mitchell and his buddy spent days retrieving, drying, tarring and repairing their find.
The friends pretty much forgot about their project over the next winter, but, one boring summer day the next year, they went to retrieve it. It was gone.
The boys tried in vain to find it, without success.
Fast-forward a bunch of decades to the day a fishing friend of Mitchell’s stopped to visit, and told a tale about recently trolling over a heavily tar-covered, patched, submerged wooden boat.
Mitchell again searched in vain. He chuckled and shook his head, still recalling his “Titanic” with fondness. He still thinks he might find it.
High school hijinks
When Mitchell was in high school, students were able to skip school the day prior to the homecoming football game to gather wood for a post-game bonfire. That skipping school part really appealed to Mitchell, and he worked hard with his classmates to build up a huge woodpile.
Strangely, that woodpile went up in flames the same evening, so the students had to take the next day off school to collect firewood again.
Forty-plus years later, the truth about the blaze came out in one of Mitchell’s columns.
He and a friend, wanting that extra day off of school, had purposely torched the first pile of wood in the dead of night.
Mitchell said he was frustrated at the time because they got overzealous with their pyrotechnical skills, and the resulting massive shooting flames were easily visible all over town and even across the lake. No one reported the blaze at the time.
Mitchell’s classmates only discovered the fire’s true culprit via his newspaper column decades later.
Mitchell was a strong athlete during both his high school and college years. He played on the varsity football, basketball, and baseball teams beginning in his freshman year.
He earned several athletic scholarships to college and played sports with several teams during the next several years.
After attending college, Mitchell returned to Howard Lake.
He got a draft notice. “But I was married by then and (President) Kennedy said if you were married, you didn’t have to go.”
A year passed, Mitchell became a father, and then received a second draft notice. “Now Kennedy said if you were married and had a kid you didn’t have to go,” he recalled.
Finding his calling as a K-9 cop
Eventually, Mitchell began attending a Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP) offered at the University of Minnesota. Between classes and work, he barely had time to sleep.
Mitchell took a job with the Minneapolis Police Department for a year, and attended K-9 training through that department’s school.
Mitchell recounted that he became the third officer in the state to have a K-9. He said the first two officers who worked with K-9s both went through the FBI’s K-9 training classes, and came back to train more Minnesota officers.
Mitchell spent most of his two and a half decade police career with the City of New Hope. During that time, he worked with two German Shepherds.
One of the K-9s, Joe, (named after Mitchell’s hero Joe Namath), earned a memorial plaque. The plaque detailed that together, Mitchell and Joe had tracked suspects and lost persons, as well as articles discarded by suspects.
They also assisted with numerous drug searches, and frequently participated in demonstrations for the public.
After Mitchell’s second K-9 died, he didn’t have the heart to work with another.
Mitchell feels, however, that he had a wonderful career.
“I might get myself in trouble,” he said, “but those were good times. I’d do it all over again, easy.”
Maintained ‘home’ for the Orphans
At the conclusion of World War II, Mitchell’s father was the driving force behind putting a baseball team together for Howard Lake, Mitchell said.
Initially, there was one slight problem. The team had no lights, no sod, and no field at all. Mitchell’s father got permission to use the ball field in Cokato, and his team was quickly dubbed the Orphans.
Once the Orphans got their own field, Mitchell began a 25-year habit of volunteering to care for nearly every aspect of it.
Using his own mower and gasoline, he kept the ball park in good shape.
He wore out several mowers over the years, and quietly paid for workers for the concession stand and the bathrooms.
When the field flooded several years ago, and became overrun with cattails, Mitchell was undeterred. Despite the disbelief of the DNR, Mitchell and friends brought in a tractor with a tiller and plowed up the outfield. They used a Bobcat to pull up the sprinkler system.
They got rid of the rouge plants, hauled in and leveled dirt, brought in new sod and seed, and had the field ready for action within two weeks.
“Can you believe the DNR tried to shut me down?” Mitchell laughed.
Mitchell said he is proud that the field still uses its first light poles, which were originally paid for by the Howard Lake Business Association of that era.
Only two poles have needed replacement over the years: one, by the third base dugout, was hit by a drunk driver; and the other, near the first base dugout, gave in to a windstorm.
Mitchell said his field maintenance work has been a great “hobby,” and he has truly appreciated the help and fun from city staffers who assisted his efforts.
Until this year, Mitchell had attended every Orphans game, rooting for his favorite team.
City council calls to him
After raising two daughters and two step-sons on a hobby farm, Mitchell grew weary of the expense of taking care of so many farm animals.
He moved onto North Shore Drive, now known as Imhoff Avenue, in Howard Lake. Mitchell said the City of Howard Lake annexed the lakeside road, and “never spent a nickel,” to maintain it.
His neighborhood was full of “kids, baby buggies, walkers, and joggers,” Mitchell said.
His decision to run for the Howard Lake City Council in 2008 was spurred on by his desire to have a safe path constructed along Imhoff Avenue.
The council is still struggling with the Imhoff issues today, and recently presented three plans for updates to the area.
Mitchell, still a council member, is in favor of what he considers to be the best option, and said he’d vote for it and it’s $1.3 million price tag.
“If we’re going to do it,’ he commented, “let’s do the damn thing right.”
Mitchell also maintains that the historic city hall renovation plan needs more thought.
He remembers when the building used to house approximately 10 businesses, the post office, city hall, the library, the fire department, the police department and a restaurant. “It used to be the center of town,” he said.
Mitchell said the city should have a number of renters in place for the building space to guarantee a steady income.
The plan for adding some building accessories irks him.
“It’s time to get it rented out,” he said. “It’s already got a bar, it’s got bathrooms. It just makes no sense.”
Mitchell also has strong opinions regarding the Kadlec building on Hwy. 12, which is soon to be demolished, and the city plans to put in a parking lot.
His vision for the space calls for creating a safe right turn lane onto Hwy 12. “I thought that was brilliant,” he said.
One other thing Mitchell believes strongly is that Howard Lake city staffers are excellent, and invested in doing their best work for the city.
He’s proud to have served on the committees which hired Police Chief Dave Thompson and City Administrator Nick Haggenmiller. He feels both men were “super, super picks.”
Mitchell is also appreciative of the city’s public works employees. “Thank God we got Tom Goepfert, Tim Kosek, and Clayton Prestidge,” he said.
Howard Lake’s mayor Pete Zimmerman feels Mitchell deserves accolades, too.
“Serving our community with Mike has been one of the highlights of my time on the council,” Zimmerman said.
“Mike loves Howard Lake and his passion to make our community a better place has been an inspiration.
Whether it’s a discussion with a resident about a water bill, or working with a developer on a large scale project, I always know that when Mike has something to say it is going to be honest, sincere, smart and with perfectly placed humor.”