The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Fortune's Gone But Not His Memories - Shirley Mitchell

By Tom Sieg © 1985

Issue: November, 1985

Editor's Note...Our appreciation is to the Winston-Salem Journal and Tom Sieg for their permission in allowing us to reprint this story.

He lay with his mouth agape, wheezing and snorting and occasionally opening his eyes to try to focus on the apparition beside his bed, then surrendering to sleep again.

When he finally was able to shake the fog, he couldn't speak aloud. He beckoned with his eyes and I leaned close to his face.

"Howdy," he whispered hoarsely.

Then he pulled against the hand-restraint designed to prevent him from removing his I.V. tubes, and he whispered again: "Cut that for me."

He knew I couldn't, but he thought it was worth a try.

Everything else was gone - $60 million, a trucking fiefdom, a dozen homes, 116 antique cars, a 2,000-acre Virginia mountain retreat complete with a zoo and a riverboat - but Shirley Mitchell hadn't lost his spunk.

It had been almost two years since we had lunched at the Carriage House - a date we had talked about since we had met for an interview five months earlier. He had tried to pick up the tab then, although his pocketbook held little but memories of the days when the good times were always on Shirley Mitchell.

He was living in a tiny government-subsidized apartment by 1983. Now he is a patient in Forsyth Memorial Hospital, said to be unable to pay his medical bills. He has been in and out of a convalescent center in recent months, but earlier this year, when he was due to enter the center again, he simply didn't show up. He still calls the apartment home.

There was little real talk yesterday morning, because he was weak and because he has a throat condition that makes speech difficult even in the best of circumstances.

Asked how he was doing, he whispered, "Pretty good." He managed to speak a few more words, but his end of the conversation consisted mostly of shaking his head yes or no when asked questions.

Old friends from his Hennis Freight Lines years - years in which he almost single-handedly built the world's largest independent trucking company - still drop by to chat, he said. And he still gets out "quite a bit" for the dinners that have become a much-needed social outlet.

In his prime, Shirley Mitchell, who is now 74, was both intensely disliked for what some saw as arrogance and loved for his generosity and humanity. While he was winning honors such as the 1962 Hadassah humanitarian-service award, some said, he was also running roughshod over those who got in his way.

He was a strong-willed man who hired the best trucking minds he could find and then made major decisions without consulting them. As a close associate and friend said of his one-man rule, "When Shirley Mitchell sat down at his desk and buttoned his coat, the board of directors had met."

He held all the stock in Hennis and several other companies. He was featured in Fortune magazine, and 20 years ago an audit was said to have put his net worth at $60 million.

If he was worth that much, he must have spent at least an equal amount on "public relations." Entertaining lavishly in his homes on Robin Hood Road, in the mountains and on the coast, he became a patron saint of clients, politicians and certain members of the media.

If Shirley Mitchell liked you, you were golden.

Unfortunately, he liked too many people. He squandered some of his money, lost some because he couldn't resist adding a car or a gun or some other bauble to his collections, and overextended his businesses financially. There was trouble with the law, trouble within his companies, and trouble in his mountain paradise, which never became quite the tourist haven he had expected.

Ultimately, after going to court to seek bankruptcy protection for Hennis, he was forced to sell out for under $10 million. He received only about $800,000 before bankruptcy also wiped out the companies that took Hennis over. All his personal property went on the auction block in 1977.

In the end he was left with no cash and dozens of creditors still gnawing at his flanks. Some of the money owed him from the sale of his company may yet be paid - that matter is still in court - but its doubtful that Mitchell will ever see any of it.

When asked in 1983 how all the money had slipped away, he said he had never been worth as much as people thought.

Told that reliable sources had once put his worth at $60 million, he said matter-of-factly, "Nope, fifty." Then trying to address what went wrong, he sighed and said: "Just say I don't have it. And I'm not trying to hide anything."

He knows, firsthand, of the warmth that many of his old drivers and friends have for him.

The feeling shows in the Virginia mountain country, where visitors now go in increasing numbers to visit the old Cockram's Mill, which Mitchell restored. Local people may still cuss Shirley Mitchell in private for letting them and their bankers down, but they don't take kindly to an outsider's doing the same.

That's part of the key to the genuine affection many in North Carolina also feel for the man. He is one of their own, a dirt-poor Stokes County boy who lived the Horatio Alger dream and was willing to share it. He is also one whose descent back into poverty seemed to evoke a perverse pleasure in those who had watched his climb to success with envy.

Some old friends have lost touch with Mitchell in recent years and months. When asked if he would appreciate hearing from them, he brightened appreciably and whispered, "Yes."

For those who'd like to remember him with a card or note, he is in Room 823, Forsyth Memorial Hospital, Winston-Salem, NC 27103.

Whatever you may think about him, Shirley Mitchell is worth remembering.