AUGUSTA — Former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell told family, friends and state legislators Tuesday that he is fortunate to have received many awards and honors during his life, but by far the greatest was serving the people of Maine in the U.S. Senate and as a U.S. attorney and U.S. District Court judge.

Mitchell’s remarks came after his official portrait was unveiled in the Hall of Flags at the State House. He said it is humbling to know the portrait will hang with those of important Mainers including U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, Maine’s first governor William King and former governor, U.S. secretary of state and U.S. Sen. Edmund S. Muskie.

“For me, this really is dancing with the stars,” said Mitchell, who grew up in Waterville.

His portrait, by Ireland-based artist James Hanley, was donated by Mitchell’s family and friends and will hang in the Hall of Flags. Hanley also did a portrait of Mitchell for Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where Mitchell served 10 years as chancellor.

In a speech to state senators and representatives before the unveiling Tuesday, Mitchell, 80, spoke of the importance of public service, which he said is at times a thankless task but also among the most notable endeavors one can undertake.

This is a time, he said, when the inability of elected officials to work together at the national level to deal with problems facing the country — unemployment, underemployment and the country’s ongoing emergency from a long and severe recession — has led to a decline in public confidence.

He offered advice to legislators: learning to listen, being patient and respecting those with whom one disagrees can help reduce the polarization and hostility that make it difficult to work together.

The onetime Senate majority leader, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize after negotiating Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement in 1998, told legislators that learning to listen was the most important lesson he learned in his political life. He listened to hundreds of hours of speeches during his five years in the peace talks and as a result, became more patient, and ultimately more effective, he said.

When Mitchell became Senate majority leader, he called Kansas senator Bob Dole, a Republican and the Senate minority leader, to ask for a meeting, telling him he wanted to have a good working and personal relationship with him.

“We discussed, we debated on hundreds of bills, some of them extremely contentious,” Mitchell said. “We often disagreed, but through it all, we respected each other.”

Mitchell said he and Dole represented different political parties with different goals and philosophies, but worked together without hostility or rancor.

“It can be done in Washington, in Augusta, in America,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell, of Mount Desert Island and New York, was given a standing ovation from lawmakers.

Among those who attended Tuesday were former eight-year state Rep. Marilyn Canavan, a Waterville Democrat, who also is former director of the State Ethics Commission; and her friend, Betty Goulette, also of Waterville.

“It just makes me very proud to be a Mainer,” Canavan said after Mitchell’s speech to the Legislature. “The topic he chose was certainly relevant in today’s divided world. Listen up, Congress. Listen up.”

Goulette, who attended Waterville High School with Mitchell, concurred with Canavan.

“I liked him in high school and I still like him,” Goulette said. “I thought his speech was excellent. He’s a good speaker.”

State Rep. Thomas R.W. Longstaff, D-Waterville, called the speech “just incredible.”

“It is one of the most inspiring speeches I’ve heard in a long time,” he said.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said he loved the bipartisan message: “When he speaks, it’s much bigger and broader than (about) his own achievements.”

Helping others

Aside from his family, Mitchell said the most important thing in his life is the Mitchell Institute, which each year gives scholarships to a graduating senior from each of the 130 public high schools in Maine.

After this year’s scholarships are announced, more than $11 million will have been given to about 2,300 students, with selection based on academic potential, financial need and community impact. The institute also provides support programs including career and personal development events, mentoring, networking, fellowship awards and an emergency fund.

“These are remarkable young men and women,” Mitchell said.

In his speech before the Legislature, Mitchell said that as a U.S. District Court judge he presided over naturalization ceremonies in federal courts in Portland and Bangor for people from all over the world. It was always a very emotional experience for him because his mother was a Lebanese immigrant who could not read or write and worked nights in a textile mill and his father was Irish-American and worked as a janitor at Colby College. Neither was educated, according to Mitchell.

He attended Waterville High School, Bowdoin College and then Georgetown University Law Center, fulfilling the American dream his parents could not, he said.

“I believe in the American dream because I’ve lived it,” he said.

He told legislators that as elected officials, they have no greater responsibility than to keep the American dream alive.

Gov. Paul LePage was not at Tuesday’s ceremonies because he was away for a family medical issue, according to his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett.

Former Gov. Joseph Brennan, gubernatorial hopeful Eliot Cutler and former Speaker of the Maine House John Martin were among those attending.

Mitchell, a Democrat, was appointed in 1980 to the U.S. Senate to fill Muskie’s unexpired term when Muskie became U.S. secretary of state. In 1982, Mitchell was elected to a full term and then re-elected in 1988.

In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed him special envoy to the Middle East, a position from which he resigned in 2011. Mitchell served as chairman of Walt Disney Co. from 2004-07. In 2006, he investigated widespread use of performance enhancing drugs by baseball players; his subsequent report was instrumental in ongoing efforts to curb the use of steroids.

Portrait of public service

Mitchell smiled as his daughter, Claire, son Andrew, and grandson, Ian, unveiled the portrait by removing a green velvet drapery. Mitchell’s brother, John, of Waterville, said beforehand that it was a happy day for the Mitchell family.

“It’s just wonderful because he (George) loves Maine so much and we love him,” John said.

After seeing the painting, Mitchell’s sister, Barbara Atkins, also of Waterville, said it was beautiful. “It’s a great day for George and for the entire family — and for the state of Maine,” she said.

A Mitchell family friend, Ercan Gurel, said he came all the way from Turkey to attend the event.

“The state is cold, but the Mitchells are warm hearted,” he said.

Other family members present included Mitchell’s daughter, Andrea, his wife, Heather, and his oldest brother, Paul, of Waterville.

Interviewed briefly after the unveiling, Mitchell said he continues to work full time at his law firm, DLA Piper, where he is chairman emeritus, and travels all over the world.

He said he had not seen the portrait before the unveiling, but he did see an emailed version.

“I think it’s very nice,” he said.

Mitchell was introduced at the portrait unveiling by Bernard Fishman, director of Maine State Museum, and Earle G. Shettleworth, state historian.

Mitchell’s portrait joins those of Smith, Muskie and King, James G. Blaine, who served in several capacities including as U.S. secretary of state under three presidents, and Thomas B. Reed, a member of the Maine House and Senate, attorney general and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Shettleworth said the State House acquired its first work of art — a full length portrait of George Washington — in 1836.

“The idea of honoring noted Maine historical and political figures by displaying their portraits in the State House began on the eve of the Civil War,” Shettleworth said, “perhaps as a reflection of the patriotic spirit of the times.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247 acalder@centralmaine.com Twitter: @AmyCalder17