Former Philomath High School science teacher Jeff Mitchell loved the outdoors and everything that nature has to offer. He loved working and experimenting in gardens. He loved planting and establishing orchards that would bear fruit for years to come.
Mitchell, who died this past summer after a battle against cancer, also loved his students. He inspired them through his individualized style, a few to the point that they wanted to become science teachers themselves.
“To this day, everything I do as an educator, I base off the model of Mr. Mitchell,” said Leland Fulton, who works as a science teacher at a small private school in Ventura, California.
Cindy Mitchell said her husband enjoyed watching his students grow and experience what he was trying to explain to them about nature, gardens and orchards.
“For Jeff, I know it was all about his students,” she said. “I think he cared about them as much as his own kids.”
As for his colleagues, many of them were amazed at the gift he had to be able to connect with students.
“He was a huge mentor to me in terms of somebody that I aspired to be as good of a teacher as he was,” said Kay Graham, who taught with Mitchell in the science department at Philomath High for nine years and today is principal at Lowell Junior and Senior High School.
Family and friends, including former colleagues and students, gathered at an Oct. 20 service at the home on the Willamette River that he shared with his wife, Cindy. Mitchell died on the morning of Aug. 20 at age 73.
PHS graduate Johnny Means would like to see his former teacher remembered through a series of plaques to be installed at places that were special to him. But beyond sharing Mitchell’s impact and love for those particular spots, they would also educate visitors to what they’re seeing.
“We’re trying to put up some memorial plaques to share Jeff’s story and talk about the different habitats where the plaques might be installed,” Means said.
Proposed sites for the plaques include the Kiger Island Slough, where Mitchell often took students for lessons on mussels, as well as the wetlands in eastern Philomath and possibly Bald Hill and the greenhouse at Philomath High.
Means, who today lives in Los Angeles, said he’s part of a group of former students that are working on the project in coordination with the high school and various organizations. A GoFundMe page was established for those who want to contribute money to help cover the costs.
“The general vision is to have some informational plaques that will both share Jeff’s story and the kind of impact he had on those areas as well as serve as an educational resource to learn more about the habitats and what makes it special,” Means said.
Jeff and Cindy Mitchell built an off-the-grid home on 80 acres near Nashville. In the 1980s, Mitchell started teaching high school at Eddyville, which he continued for 28 years until his retirement in Philomath.
Some likened him to a modern-day “Johnny Appleseed,” a theme seen at his memorial service. Over the years, Mitchell and his students planted several orchards, including in places such as Eddyville, Summerton, near his residence in Corvallis and at the Philomath Food Bank.
“He had students that just worshipped him,” former PHS principal Nels Thompson said. “They were willing to work incredibly hard and wanting not so much to please him but to build upon what he was giving them. He was a really demanding teacher and he would definitely get distressed when the students were not meeting his expectations. He took some of that personally, too.
“That’s how he approached it and that’s what always amazed me so much about his abilities,” he added.
Mitchell’s primary subjects were botany, general biology and ecology along with a few other special classes along the way.
The greenhouse on the campus of PHS is another example of what Mitchell left behind for students. Thompson helped Mitchell put together the funding to pay for the greenhouse and once that was all arranged, “he took off with it.”
Mitchell also got the raised beds going next to the greenhouse and developed curriculum around those two new additions to the campus.
“He felt that education needed to be experienced and that it was something his students did that was hands-on,” Cindy Mitchell said. “He integrated all of the other stuff.”
Graham remembers when she joined the Philomath School District after teaching the previous five years at Mapleton.
“It was the first time that I had the opportunity to be a part of a department,” Graham said. “I don’t think I could’ve landed in a better department in the state of Oregon and maybe the Pacific Northwest.”
Molly O’Malley, who also taught in the sciences at PHS and retired in 2011, described Mitchell as having a “childlike wonderment to all of the cool things” to the natural world.
“In his lesson plans, when he was writing them out, you’re taught in education classes to have your objectives and lessons to accomplish and his first one in every lesson plan was ’students will have fun,’” O’Malley said. "He coupled that with very high standards but also individualized to each kid.”
Graham laughed about how she secretly competed with Mitchell in trying to inspire students to perform better on tests. Mitchell had a way of inspiring the other educators around him.
“He was so knowledgeable … nobody compared to his knowledge level — especially in the ecology end of things,” Graham said. “He taught me in terms of the field trips and how important those are and the curriculum and his hard work. He was always at school early and stayed late to accomplish all of the tasks that needed to be done.”
Thompson said Betsy Anderson was a teacher on staff at the time that had really embraced outdoor classrooms and Mitchell followed that up during a time when the concept was taking off.
“There was kind of a push from the building to try to get more teachers out to get more hands-on stuff,” Thompson recalled. “There was actually kind of a statewide push for the outcome-based kind of thing that we had back then.”
For example, during his time at PHS, Mitchell’s classes would make the half-mile trek from campus to the mill ponds that were once a part of Clemens Mill on the eastern edge of town. Mitchell and his students wouldn’t fire up any school buses for the trip over, however, instead making the journey to and from the outdoor classroom on bicycles.
“His appreciation for nature — that was a gift to all of his students,” O’Malley said. “He was also pretty quirky-dorky, the things that he would do sometimes. I think in some ways, I wonder if that allowed students to be who they were and that was another gift.
“He loved his students for who they were, the whole variety,” she added. "He didn’t have a set type of students. All students were cool to him.”
Graham remembers Mitchell as a teacher who didn’t take off during the summer, either. She recalled how he would stage workshops for other teachers and also stayed on top of work that needed to be done at the greenhouse and with the raised garden beds.
When fall hit, educators and students enjoyed a feast.
“They would harvest all of their vegetables that they had grown over the summer and we would have a harvest meal in conjunction with home economics, or culinary arts as it’s called now, and that was a yearly event,” Graham said.
Another side of Mitchell’s contributions to teaching could be seen with college students.
“Sometimes it’s hard to do, but I didn’t know him to ever turn down a student teacher,” Graham said. “He worked in tight conjunction with Oregon State … and churned out a lot of really strong science teachers.
“He’s one of the most selfless teachers I’ve worked with,” she added. “He was always willing to share resources.”
After Mitchell had been diagnosed with cancer, there was an effort to compile a book of letters to him for his 72nd birthday. India Sloat, who currently teaches his former classes at Philomath High, was among those who wrote one.
“One of the things that struck me as a very green, newbie teacher was Jeff’s way of making students strive to be their best,” Sloat said, paraphrasing a sentiment that she shared in the letter. “He helped many students on their path to self-discovery by believing in them, being complimentary and trusting they had the ability to be a great naturalist.”
Sloat was among those who attended his memorial service.
“It’s really inspiring as a teacher to see someone who had such an impact on students,” she said. “This guy made a difference, he helped people become their better selves, which was kind of his talent, his gift. He just held people to high expectations and was very positive with the way he talked to students. He gave compliments in a way that kinda made you rise to the occasion.”
Mitchell was also heavily tied to the community and Graham remembers him being involved in various beautification and restoration projects around town. His involvement included organizations such as the Marys River Watershed Council, the Riverkeepers board of directors and The Marys Peak Interpretive Center Outdoor Education Program, which he co-founded.
As for the students, Mitchell most likely left an impact of most of those that went through his classroom.
Fulton and Means both graduated with the Class of 2004. Mitchell inspired them both through his teaching, knowledge and classroom presence. Fulton credits Mitchell for why he’s working today as a science teacher.
“He totally changed the trajectory of what I was passionate about and how I ended up doing what I’m doing,” Fulton said. “He made me realize what I was doing in school was meaningful and had a real-world application and he showed us through his tireless efforts to get us involved in the community.”
Visits to the wetlands, the food bank or the experimental forest on campus are just a few examples of where the students would learn in a natural setting.
“He brought so much enthusiasm and excitement and life to it — it’s what lit him up,” Fulton said. “It got him fired up and he shared that with everybody. He was always working but you could tell that he loved it. It was infectious.”
Means said his science teacher had a huge impact on his life just as his junior year was beginning at Philomath High. Joseph Means, his father, had died at age 51 in late August 2002.
“The botany class and Jeff Mitchell played a huge part in helping me get through that year,” Means recalled. “I think probably what made him special as a teacher was the fact that despite having this profound excitement and passion for the natural world and all of the things we were studying, it was really just also about what he did to make kids believe in themselves.”
Mitchell had the gift of being able to make each student he taught feel special.
“He would just throw out these really sincere compliments to every single student that’s in the class — really specific, to hit home,” Means said. “He had a huge impact on me. I don’t know if I would’ve graduated without him.”
Mitchell’s departure will obviously be felt by all of those he impacted, none more than his wife, Cindy.
“We were married 47 years,” she said. “I can’t believe he’s gone.”