Cherie Mitchell was relentless in her efforts to secure a location and build a college in Brookings. When asked what her biggest accomplishment was as a board member for Southwestern Oregon Community College, she talked about the process for a good 50 to 60 minutes.
“I always felt that we needed a college,” Mitchell said. “This driving to Coos Bay was expensive and tiring and expensive to live up there to study.”
Mitchell’s dream was finally realized in January 2012 when the new campus opened after about 18 months of construction.
And when others talked about Mitchell’s contributions to SWOCC, everyone had the same response: her key role in building the new campus.
“You couldn’t possibly have enough newspaper space for all of her accomplishments,” SWOCC board chair Rick Howell said. “I think one of the biggest is the college. She worked very hard on getting our campus in Brookings.
And as a board member, she’s very participatory. She did her homework, and she was willing to make tough decisions.”
Mitchell retired from the Southwestern Oregon Community College (SWOCC) Board of Education Monday night because she is getting older and doesn’t want to make the long drive up to Coos Bay every month for board meetings, she said. Mitchell had served since 2005. Her term was set to expire in July 2013.
Before serving on the board, Mitchell was a member of an advisory council for Curry Campus, a group that worked to annex into the SWOCC district, the Chetco Vision Action Team (CVAT) and taught a series on herbs for the college. She also has been involved in the Brookings-Harbor Chamber of Commerce, Philanthropic Educational Organization and is a member of the Chetco Grange.
“My whole focus was Curry County,” she said. “I never met all of the instructors up there (in Coos Bay) because I was more concerned with things down here. My main concern was getting property and building the physical facility.”
Mitchell was part of a team that visited countless sites.
“But it always came down to we didn’t have the money,” she said. “We were constantly working on it, it seemed like.”
After years of work, the group finally had a location thanks to a 10-acre site donated by U.S. Borax (now Rio Tinto).
“When you look back, where did all the time go? I don’t know,” Mitchell said.
Although Mitchell was instrumental in getting a new facility built, she was very humble about her contributions; she quickly began to rattle off names such as Rep. Wayne Krieger, Steve Kridelbaugh and Burton Weast who all worked on the project as well.
“There’s just been a lot of people involved,” she said.
Judy May-Lopez, who also worked on the project, said Mitchell played a large role.
“It has been a pleasure to know Cherie Mitchell — over the years she has been an inspiration to all of us by her selfless giving,” May-Lopez wrote in an email. The new campus “is outstanding, and Cherie was one of the many people involved who helped make this a reality.”
Former SWOCC, Curry Campus Dean Peggy Goergen said Mitchell has been a big asset to the college.
“Cherie’s been invaluable to the program down here in Curry County,” Goergen said. “She was on the advisory for adult education through the South Coast Service District, now the Curry Education Service District, an entity for public schools that provides purchasing services and (other) services small schools can’t afford to do on their own.”
And along with advisory committee member Larry Minnich, Mitchell was instrumental in the SWOCC annexation, Goergen said.
“They were the ones that instrumentally got the vote that caused the annexation back to SWOCC,” she said. In 1960, when SWOCC was the first community college in the state, Curry County didn’t want to belong. They didn’t want to pay taxes for something most people wouldn’t use.
“In 1995, that vote passed. Measure 5 rolled back property taxes … which meant that we could annex, and it wouldn’t cost most taxpayers one single dime. That enabled us to be able to say you can have community college services now, business center, blah blah but it won’t cost any more money because property tax dollars being rolled back anyway.
“She was in at the very beginning and very, very helpful. She’s been incredible. She knows what the students need, and she’s got the big picture, too.”
During Mitchell’s time on the board, a nursing program was added at the Curry campus and more high school students are enrolling in college classes, Goergen added.
“She’s always willing to pitch in and help,” Goergen said. “It takes a lot of time to understand the issues, and try to represent the district as whole as well as Curry County students in particular. She worked really hard to raise the funding for this campus here in Brookings.”
When asked why she’s so passionate about education, Mitchell responded:
“I went to a one-room school in the country in upstate New York. My father took care of the schools: heated water, collected the assessment money for the districts. When my parents retired and moved to town, they helped with the community college there. My brother and sister and I are all college graduates. (Mitchell attended Cornell University.) I didn’t worry about how to get it paid for, but I had jobs.
“I saw here so many kids that should be going to college weren’t going to college or getting a career. No matter what you do, you can start here for the first two years.
“I think the others that have worked have had the same feeling. We’ve had the same feeling. We’re really a country school or a country area. Many families have no appreciation for education or feel there’s no way to afford it.”
By completing the first two years of school at SWOCC, students can save money, Mitchell said.
She decided to run for the board position because she already had been in key projects such as the annexation.
“It was kind of an evolution,” Mitchell said. “Larry Minnich (a board member from Gold Beach) was going to move. They were looking for someone to run from down here, and I said ‘I’ll do it.’”
Mitchell and her husband Don moved to Brookings 23 years ago to start their retirement project, Flora Pacifica.
Prior to that, the Mitchells lived and worked in Iraq, Idaho, Thailand, Laos and Virginia. Don worked for Internal Volunteer Services, the United States Agency International Development program and on a family farm. Cherie was employed by the Internal Volunteer Services and for a refugee program in Virginia. She primarily worked with unaccompanied minors from Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and South America.
“Most of my life has been volunteer work,” she said.
Ever since Mitchell read a set of geography books as a child, she knew she wanted to travel.
“I wanted to visit all the countries I read about,” she said. “It was a great life.”
Her favorite post was in upcountry Thailand because “you really got into the community.”
Now that Mitchell has retired, she wants to travel more: Arizona and a few other southwestern states are on the list. Don and Cherie also would like to try their hand at writing.
Will she be missed?
“Oh yes. Oh definitely,” Goergen said. “But I certainly understand she feels she’s put in enough time driving up and down the road.”
“She will be very missed,” he said. “She was a good representative for Curry County and for all of our college community.”