“Without heroes, we are all plain people and don’t know how far we can go.” — Bernard Malamud
The Delaware Valley Legacy Fund honors heroes in our community at the annual Heroes event. This year’s event will be held May 6 at the PNC Center, 1600 Market St. We spoke to board president Mark Mitchell to find out whom his heroes are.
PGN: I detect an accent: Where are you from? MM: Memphis, Tenn. My mother passed away three years ago and I found a book of hers that had her entire family history. I was surprised to learn that I’m a fifth-generation Memphian and one of my great-great uncles was a pioneer of Shelby County, which Memphis is a part of.
PGN: What did your parents do? MM: My dad was an investment banker, a senior vice president for Duncan A. Williams Inc., and my mom worked for the county court clerk’s office. They met when my dad came in to get a license for something. After we were born, she was a stay-at-home mom until my dad passed away when we were 16, then she went into real estate.
PGN: Who is “we?” MM: My identical twin and me.
PGN: You mean there are two of you! MM: [Laughs.] I know, except that he’s straight. We’re very close though. We’re best of friends and call each other every other day. There was never any problem with me being gay or him being straight.
PGN: What’s a funny twin moment? MM: We have an Aunt Betty who took my brother and me to the pediatrician. I was getting stitches removed, and so we swapped places. We thought the doctor would go crazy looking for them, but he didn’t fall for it. He yelled out with his southern drawl, “Betty Mitchell, git that other child in here now, ah don’t have time for these shenanigans!” My brother was trying to control his giggles, and I burst out laughing. We would switch all the time — classes, functions, you name it. It was great fun!
PGN: Who had the hardest time telling you apart? MM: My dad! I have a small mole and he’d have to look for it to see which one was which. In pictures, we’d have to put an arrow so he’d know who was who.
PGN: Other than pranksters, what were you like as kids? MM: We were mirror opposites. We got along great though, which was good because we got everything in twos. If I got a truck, Robert got a truck. If he got a bike, I got a bike. Finally, about fourth grade, they realized that we were our own people and started treating us separately. It’s funny: I can look back and see that as the moment we became the people we are today. It really shaped our personalities being separated for the first time. He moved more toward athletics and I leaned more toward the arts. I sang in the church choir and in the high-school choir and was more of a leader than Rob.
PGN: What was the best trick you ever played? MM: We set up a rink in our front yard. It was like a skating rink, but we used it to ride our mopeds. We put up jumps and everything. It was good until Robert went flying into a tree. I ran in to tell my mother and acted like I had nothing to do with the setup — “I have no idea what he was doing on the front lawn!” We used to blame each other for things though we never really got into trouble. In the South, you don’t have to be told something twice. If we got caught and were told not to do something again, you can best believe we wouldn’t push it for a second try.
PGN: What was a favorite toy? MM: Rob and I asked Santa for an Atari game set. They’d just come out and no one in our area had one. But my father knew someone at Federal Express who knew someone at Atari and he managed to get one delivered to our house Christmas Eve. For weeks after that, all the kids came to our house to play. It was like Camp Mitchell at our house. I still remember some of the games — Asteroids and Centipede — on little cartridges. We were so happy that we wrote a letter to Santa thanking him. It somehow made its way to the desk of the president of Federal Express who contacted us and on behalf of Santa, gave us a private tour of a FedEx plane! It was amazing.
PGN: Did that teach you the importance of letter-writing? MM: To this day, I always try to send out thank-you notes to people. I enjoy texting and emails, but I miss letters. I send out Christmas cards and birthday cards all the time. If someone’s puppy gives birth, I’ll find a card to send. I’m one of those people.
PGN: Jumping forward, where did you go to college? MM: I went to Crichton College in Memphis, which was a small liberal-arts Christian college, and got my bachelor’s in business administration. In the summer of my last year, a friend of my mother’s offered me a job doing mortgage banking that kind of put me on the path to where I am now. It was unbelievably lucrative: No one at 21 should have been making that kind of money.
PGN: When did you come out? MM: After college. It was tough coming out in the South. Thank goodness for “Steel Magnolias” and “Designing Women.” I laugh about it but they really did have an impact. “Designing Women” tackled AIDS when no one was talking about it and “Steel Magnolias” dealt with homosexuality. It started opening doors for people in my generation to talk. I think I knew in high school. I played the rabbi’s son in “Fiddler on the Roof” and had waaaay too much fun. I started noticing girls in a “hmm, that outfit would look much cuter on her” fashionista sort of way. I was the perfect date. The Southern gentleman the girls wanted to have escort them to parties. I’m sure at heart they knew I was gay and therefore “safe.” I got asked to everything!
PGN: It sounds like you were involved with the church a lot. Was there a lot of fire and brimstone talk? MM: No, I went to the Disciples of Christ church and they were actually very progressive. It was the fourth-largest church in Memphis. I don’t remember our preacher ever saying one negative thing about homosexuality and, in the early days of AIDS, he always mentioned those afflicted by HIV in our prayers. On top of that, our choir director was openly gay and had a partner and they were friends with my parents. We’d go to their house for Sunday dinners and my brother and I would hang out at their pool. My parents never had a problem with it. I was very lucky. As opposed to some kids who get kicked out of the house for being gay, my mother was like, “Why are you leaving? You can still work and travel and live at home!” Even my grandmother, who was very religious, was completely accepting.
PGN: How did you end up in Philadelphia? MM: I moved to Nashville first to work at a mortgage company and we used to send a lot of business to Crusader Bank that used to be right here at 13th and Walnut. I got to go to dinner one night with the president of the bank and he said, “I’d like to offer you a job if you’d be willing to move to Philadelphia.” I spoke to my family about it and moved here on July 4, 1998, so I’ve been here for almost 14 years. I obviously like it.
PGN: I understand you do a lot of nonprofit work. MM: Yes, before I moved here, I did some work for Habitat for Humanity back in Nashville.
PGN: Did you hit your thumb with the hammer? MM: Many times! But some good came out of it as well, beyond just helping people. I met a great guy there. His name was Mott Moore, like the applesauce and the paint company. I just remember us laughing the whole time as I told him I didn’t know which to choose first, the fruit or the paint! Then when I first moved here, I got involved with Dance Affiliates. My female hairdresser asked me to be on the board. I had no clue what I was doing, but accepted and got thrown into doing a fundraiser right off the bat. It was successful and I really got into it. From there, I got involved with the Human Rights Campaign and, currently, I’m the board president of the DVLF and I helped start the Philadelphia chapter of The Trevor Project — I’m the coambassador. With the intensity of job, it kind of lightens my day doing the nonprofit work. It gives me perspective on what’s really important.
PGN: And what’s your day job? MM: I’m a special-investigations unit auditor with Radian Guaranty. I investigate potential fraudulent activity and examine suspicious insurance claims for evidence of fraud. It’s a combination of my parents’ jobs — investment banking and real estate. I got the job two years ago on the same day that Michael Jackson died, so I always remember when I started working there.
PGN: Any interesting fraud capers? MM: My very first day, the very first file that I reviewed looked a little funny to me. It felt like a ponzi scheme, so I contacted the woman on the account, who was retired. I interviewed her and she told me to get in touch with the FBI. I told my supervisor and he started telling me what to do if I got a subpoena and I’m like, “What? This is my first day, what’s all this about the FBI and subpoenas and testifying! No one said anything about having to testify to anything!” But I learned that it’s all part of the territory and now I really find my job fascinating.
PGN: Here’s an arbitrary question: Which celebrity chef would you most like to fix you a meal? MM: Why, Paula Dean of course ... She fries everything!
PGN: Clark Kent or Superman? MM: Clark Kent for sure.
PGN: Name three objects you love. MM: The cufflinks I’m wearing were given to me by a dear friend. We went to lunch and she wished me a happy birthday and handed me a box from Tiffany’s. I adore the little blue box! It was wonderful, but I was a little surprised because it was January and my birthday is in July. She said, “Oh well, I knew it was a month with a ‘J’ in it.” So they’re very special and memorable. I also bought my first watch when I moved here. It was one of my first purchases and I also got it from Tiffany’s. It’s a classic timepiece and I treasure it. The third thing may sound crazy, but when my mother died, she left me a little cordial set. My father had given them to her as an anniversary gift and I like to bring them out sometimes when I have company. It reminds me of a time when you would sip your sherry or liqueurs when you had guests over. I love them.
PGN: Which was better: “Fame,” “Footloose” or “Flashdance”? MM: “Footloose” with Kevin Bacon all the way. That shower scene ... Enough said.
PGN: Favorite piece of clothing? MM: I’ll confess, my nickname is “Crazy Pants Mark” because I have a pair of pants with embroidered horses on them. I also have pants with mallard ducks and alligators. I love my seersuckers and my madras pants. When I step out, I have to be wearing something with fun and flair.
PGN: Any pets? MM: I had an amazing Jack Russell named Teagan who passed away two years ago. She was a rescue dog and so funny. I called her my Mexican jumping bean, because she would pop up in the air.
PGN: I’m so gay ... MM: That I’m obsessed with pop culture. Right now, I’m keeping up with Will and Kate getting ready for the royal wedding. I’m actually taking off of work that day so I can watch all the pomp and circumstance.
PGN: If you could have lunch with anyone, whom would it be? MM: My grandmother. I have such fond memories of her. She was a Southern belle who lit up a room when she walked in. We had great conversations on her front porch and I’d love to be able to relive those fun times.
PGN: What’s a good conversation? MM: When I first came out, she did not like my ex-boyfriend. She really pushed me to get away to Nashville and get rid of him. She said I could do better and she was right!
PGN: Since you’re into pop culture, who’s an actor you’d like to be? MM: Montgomery Clift. Just the way he carried himself, not to mention those classic good looks. He was so debonair.
PGN: And who should play you in your life story? MM: Nathan Lane. He’s totally me already. We both have the same wicked sense of humor.
PGN: Favorite movie line? MM: “Steel Magnolias” when they’re in the beauty salon and Clairee is quoting her gay nephew saying, “All gay men have track lightin.’ And all gay men are named Mark, Rick or Steve.” Then Ouiser walks on and tells them her grandson Steve just helped her put in track lighting and she doesn’t know why they’re laughing. Oh, I could act out the whole scene! There are so many great lines in that movie! My friends hate me ’cause I quote them all.
PGN: DVLF has its Heroes ball coming up: Who’s a real-life hero of yours? MM: Coretta Scott King [for] the way she fought for equal rights up until her last breath, and the way she embraced the gay community and fought for our rights as well. I can’t think of anyone else who I would want to emulate more than her.