By Patsy Parker
“Teaching is not a vocation, nor a profession, it’s a life choice,” says Mrs. Ann Finley Mitchell. This is the standard by which she has lived the almost 93 years of her life. She is still vivacious, energetic, and full of wisdom and mirth.
Ann Finley Mitchell was born in Lafayette, Ala. to the late Steve and Diamond Finley. She graduated from East Street High School in Opelika in 1940 and was a 1946 graduate of Alabama State University where she was a member of the majorette squad, the college choir, and dance troop. In 1943, while still attending college, Ann was hired by Dr. W. E. Morton, her high school principal, to teach third grade in Opelika. She was the first East Street High School graduate to be hired as a teacher at East Street School. Later, Mitchell was transferred to the newly-built J. W. Darden High School where she taught mathematics. During integration, Mrs. Mitchell transferred to Opelika Junior High School as a mathematics teacher. She remained there until her retirement in 1982.
For thirty-nine years, Mitchell dedicated her life to challenging her students to soar to higher heights. Her main objective as a classroom teacher was for her students to learn and to excel in the learning process. She made certain that each individual student achieved excellence based on each of their potentials. Even though she has not taught for many years, former students from all walks of life remember and credit her for their success. Her impact on her students is quite evident in their adult impressions of this very dynamic lady. Some of their comments draw beautiful pictures with the same theme.
Robert Williams, president of Bancorp South, often speaks of Mrs. Mitchell in very reverent words. He stated, “Over forty years ago, Mrs. Ann Mitchell shaped my future because she cared enough to make learning challenging, because she cared enough to demand the best of me. She does not care about race or gender, she cares about passion. She cares about the passion of reaching your highest potential. I love Mrs. Ann Mitchell.” This is quite evident because Robert never forgets her on special days.
Mrs. Mary Lillian Walker, a practicing partner in the law firm of Hudson, Parrott and Walker of Atlanta echoed the same sentiments in her comments about Mrs. Mitchell. When asked did she remember Mrs. Mitchell, her seventh grade teacher, she replied, “Of course I remember Mrs. Mitchell—she was a wonderful teacher! Seventh grade can be a tough time for kids. We all remember wandering the halls wondering whether we were popular, cool, or wearing the right clothes. Luckily for me, I got to leave the halls every day and enter Mrs. Mitchell’s second floor math class. Mrs. Mitchell greeted each student with a warm smile, and she made each of us feel liked, respected, and valued. No doubt about it—Mrs. Mitchell was one of the most wonderful teachers I had during my school years. She provided a wonderful foundation for advanced mathematics while also teaching the value of kindness and a smile. Thank you so much, Mrs. Mitchell, and an early “Happy Birthday!”
These sentiments continued from every person interviewed. Billy Abrams, MBA, who retired from AT&T as a project manager and is presently serving as sales manager at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center at Tuskegee, Alabama, was happy he was asked to express his sentiments about Mrs. Mitchell. He said, “Mrs. Mitchell was a teacher of teachers. She could be a quiet and sometimes not so quiet disciplinarian. She was my seventh grade teacher who I considered my teacher throughout my high school years. Her impact on my life speaks to who I am today. When I entered her class at J. W. Darden High School, she began to shape my thinking about excelling in everything that I do. First, there were the study habits. She suggested that we answer all of the questions at the end of each chapter. So important! Secondly, she made sure we followed through and finished what we started. Thirdly, she insisted that we participate in extracurricular activities to become more well-rounded persons. These three principles speak volumes to me today. Even though I have been away from her, she is as near to me as my mother. Peace and blessings to an extraordinary woman. Dr. William Pollard, another J. W. Darden High School graduate, added to Mr. Abrams sentiments, saying, “Whether explaining complicated mathematical concepts to students in terms they can understand or helping students appreciate the beauty in a Walt Whitman poem, Mrs. Mitchell is a gifted teacher. Yet, her best gift as a teacher is her ability to make each student feel special.”
Mrs. Birdie Peterson, a former teacher, retired chairman of the Opelika City Board of Education, and local owner and funeral director for Peterson and Williams Funeral Home, eloquently spoke of Mrs. Mitchell’s qualities, saying, “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.” This vividly describes Ann Mitchell. She has always been well-loved, admired, and respected for her service and profound commitment to education and making the Opelika community a better place in which to live. Personally, Mrs. Mitchell has been a nurturing and encouraging person in my life and the lives of my family members. From the beginning of my Christian journey as a child at St. Luke A.M.E Church, Mrs. Mitchell made and continues to make a positive and profound impact for kingdom building and enrichment of the church. To say that I am indeed grateful that she has been one of my role models on this journey would be an understatement.”
Nancy Parker, anchor at WVUE Fox 8 News in New Orleans spoke of Mitchell’s impact on her life from her childhood until today: “Mrs. Mitchell is the ultimate lady. I remember growing up attending Saint Luke A.M.E. Church and observing Mrs. Mitchell whose head was always held high and her shoulders back. She was, and still is, the epitome of dignity. Mrs. Mitchell always had an encouraging word, always sincere and supportive, even to us as adults. Mrs. Mitchell did not teach me, but was so like a family member. This lady is cut from a rare and strong vintage cloth that just isn’t made anymore. She is a treasure!
William A. Parker, Sr. who was the principal at Opelika Junior High School during some of Mrs. Mitchell’s tenure, states that Mitchell was one of the most dedicated, sincere, caring, and intelligent teachers he has had the honor of knowing. She was not only a teacher, but also a friend and advisor. Her experiences were valuable to the entire staff.
For more than thirty nine years, Ann Mitchell has dedicated her life to impacting, uplifting, and challenging her students to soar to higher heights. She instilled in her students, young people in the community, and the church, the importance of hard work, education, and respect for self and others. Her objective as a classroom teacher was to instill in her students the desire to learn and excel in every endeavor. In addition to teaching mathematics and elementary education, Mitchell taught Adult Education and worked with the Alternative Education Program. She was the first drum majorette advisor in the history of East Street School. This writer was one of her majorettes. Mrs. Mitchell has often remarked that, “Teaching is not a vocation or a profession, it is a life choice.” She states she never has believed that learning was only for the select few who naturally excel. I always approached teaching with a clear understanding that God’s gift of knowledge is for everyone.”
In her early years of teaching, Mrs. Mitchell was also involved with the Opelika Parks and Recreation during the summer months. She worked with Bill Calhoun and Ann Canon Price. After retirement, she served for several years as a poll worker during Lee County election seasons. At the age of 92, Mrs. Mitchell continues to be very active. William David Mitchell, her husband of more than 40 years, died several years ago. The Mitchells never had children of their own; however, they were the guardians of their niece and nephew, Debra Mitchell Marshall and Darryl Mitchell, when they lost their parents. She adores her granddaughter, Timyra Marshall Curry, who was guided into adulthood by her mother and Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell. Mrs. Mitchell always expresses how blessed she is to have her niece, Dr. Yvonne Phillips, and a host of grand nieces, nephews, and godchildren whom she adores. She has been a wonderful role model for these loved ones and many have followed in her footsteps, a living tribute to her exemplary life.
Mrs. Mitchell is a member of Saint Luke A.M.E. Church of Opelika, where she has touched so many lives and continues to do so.
She served as a trustee, church secretary, member of the Senior Choir and Lee Bertha Harris Memorial Club which has as its primary role, youth work. She presently serves on the Board of Stewards, the Finance Committee, a member of the Helen Danita Todd Women’s Missionary Society and the Saint Luke A.M.E. Pastor’s Aide Board. She is an Eastern Star, a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, and a former member of the Tree Commission of Opelika. For her unselfish devotion to the children of Opelika and her church, she was named one of the 1992 Lee County East Alabama Women of Achievement.
This dynamic lady, who will be 93 years old in May, is a joy to know. She never stops being wherever she is needed. She is truly the mother of Saint Luke A.M.E. Church and of all of us who have had the honor of having her touch our lives.