On July 10, 2017, the city of Richmond, VA mourned the loss of the great John Thomas “Tiger Tom” Mitchell, who passed away at the age of 100. He was a man whose dedication to broadcast journalism was felt in communities across this city, and whose voice and impact spanned generations.
But, who was “Tiger Tom” Mitchell?
Sure, he’s remembered as the Richmond native who began investing in the Black community at the ripe age of twelve, working at Maggie L. Walker’s newspaper, the St. Luke Herald. For some, he’s recognized as the voice of Friday night football games at City Stadium. For most, though, he’s heralded as the voice that dominated the airwaves on WANT-990 AM radio.
But those are merely Mr. Mitchell’s professional accomplishments. His impact on broadcast journalism will forever remain etched in the minds of all who follow him, especially local disc jockeys seeking to carry on the torch he carried for decades. When speaking of who “Tiger Tom” Mitchell was and the legacy he leaves, what’s most important to remember is his character. After all, it’s his character that allowed him to lead such a remarkable career, a career governed by his personal ideals of curiosity, camaraderie, patience, peace, and the truth.
Mitchell was a true student of the world, always curious and eager to learn. As a result, his children and even friends regularly consulted with him on everything from world history to dissertations.
“I call him Google before there was Google,” remembers Cary Mitchell, Thomas Mitchell’s son. “There was not a time that we couldn’t go to our father with a question and he’d give us a little extra insight. Especially with history; he was a history buff, so naturally, we all have a nose for history, too.”
In fact, Mitchell’s curiosity was what initially led him to a career in journalism; he remained curious and conscious of what was happening in the world, and he carried that curiosity with him up into his final days. His wealth of knowledge not only helped propel his career as a journalist, but he also used his smarts to assist friends and students with papers and assignments. To everyone, he was a friend, willing to extend a hand, engage in meaningful discourse, and build relationships with those around him.
It’s those relationships that served as examples for his children, and is what they’re most proud of when it comes to his legacy.
“[My father] showed what it was like to be a friend,” says Cary Mitchell. “He was a good husband to my mother, Elizabeth Mitchell, a good father, and a good brother. He’d get into debates with lots of friends; one specifically was an activist by the name of August Moon. They had a 20-year age difference and didn’t agree on a lot, but he valued that friendship and showed us that you can have friends who don’t carry your exact beliefs.”
Mitchell explains that his father’s example was so crucial because so often, people don’t listen to others, especially those whose beliefs don’t align with theirs. But Thomas Mitchell was a shining example of how to be a good citizen and friend who’s open to seeing all angles and respecting differing opinions.
With such tolerance for diversity in thought also comes patience, which is arguably the most notable value he instilled in his family every day. “Cool, calm, and collected” was his mantra, and he made a valiant effort to not only speak it, but live it out for all to see.
“He had the patience of Job,” says Elizabeth Mitchell, Tom’s wife of over 50 years. “He didn’t know what it was to get angry.”
As a result, Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell taught their children that it takes two people to have an argument. Contention need not be met with contention; you can make the choice not to engage and maintain your inner peace.
“My father was a problem-solver,” says Cary Mitchell. “You can argue all you want, but my father focused on solutions. How are you going to solve the problem?”
This level of patience only comes when you’ve reached and maintained an unshakeable level of inner peace, and that’s exactly what Mr. Mitchell strived for.
“He used the word ‘peace’ a lot,” remembers his family. “If you didn’t know that he was born in 1916, you’d think he was talking about ‘peace’ in the hippie sense. But he was talking about peace long before Woodstock,” laughs Cary Mitchell.
It’s no surprise Mr. Mitchell placed much importance on the concepts of patience and peace; his career took off during the height of the Civil Rights era, when racial tensions were at an all-time high. Not only was there a need for peace within the local communities, but there was also a tremendous need for inner peace in order to focus on what he believed was most important—the truth.
“Tiger Tom” Mitchell’s entire career—and livelihood, really—was built upon identifying and communicating the truth.
“He was all about getting the black community’s story out the way it truly was, and the way we really see it,” says Cary Mitchell. “He served as the conduit between the masses and what was happening within the community.”
He also used the truth to dissolve conflict amongst our own people, specifically during the Civil Rights Movement when there were frequent debates about which movement to follow. Whether you agreed with MLK, Malcolm X, or the Confederacy, Mr. Mitchell always began the discussion by identifying the truth. Above all, he valued clarity and made an effort to correct misinformation. To him, only messages founded in truth had any place on the air.
This ideology stuck with Mr. Mitchell throughout his career and into his final days. As a respected journalist he understood the importance of sticking to the foundational rules of journalism, a value he believed was lost as corporate radio became more prevalent. His reputation of possessing the eloquence and tactfulness to say exactly what needed to be said without starting a riot made his particular style of broadcasting so remarkable. For the past 20 years, however, he felt the integrity of journalism suffered.
“He’d ask, is this a news story, or the National Enquirer?” laughs his son, Cary. “He was curious about how journalists determined the truth, and when he spoke to them, he’d always give pointers on how to properly share information.”
Nowadays, however, disc jockeys must toe the line of communicating honestly with the public without upsetting sponsors and station owners. Though there are many DJs today whose beliefs align with Mitchell’s, they don’t have the same freedom as he did during his time on air. As a result, he believed they had a personal responsibility to get creative in order to deliver the truth.
Through every accomplishment, John Thomas “Tiger Tom” Mitchell remained a man rooted in love and light. The man and message he presented on the airwaves was consistent with the man and message present in both his household and in every personal interaction. He was a living, breathing example of the makings of an incredible husband, father, friend, and human being who taught us all the importance of being an outstanding citizen and student of the world. His ideals of curiosity, camaraderie, patience, peace, and truth have lived long beyond his time on the air, and thanks to his good work, will continue to live long beyond his time on this earth. May we all continue on his great legacy.
Photos courtesy of Photos by Carl, and Brad Johnston (ELBRAVADOR FILMWORKS)