Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell on Wednesday was given a special award for government service by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.
Mitchell, a Waterville native serving as President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, received the Ellis Island Family Heritage Award at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City.
The award celebrates exemplary immigrants who came to the U.S. through Ellis Island in the Port of New York — or their descendants — who have made a major contribution to the American experience.
Others who received awards Wednesday were businessman Lee Iacocca, founding chairman of the Ellis Island Foundation; Major League baseball legend Joe Torre; and tennis superstar Martina Navratilova.
In a telephone interview just after the awards ceremony, Mitchell, standing on the center stage at the museum, said he was honored to have been recognized.
“It means a lot to me personally, particularly the recognition of my parents,” Mitchell, 77, said.
His mother, Mintaha “Mary” Saad, moved to the U.S. in 1920 from Lebanon when she was 18, entering through Ellis Island, Mitchell said.
“My father (George Sr.) was the orphan son of Irish immigrants, adopted by a family in Waterville,” he said. “They met and married, and I’m the product of that, along with my brothers and sister. My parents had no education. My mother couldn’t read or write. They worked long and hard — my mother in the textile mill, my father, a janitor at Colby (College).”
Mitchell’s wife, Heather, and their children, Andrew and Claire, were present at Wednesday’s ceremony, as were Mitchell’s brothers, Paul and John, and sister, Barbara, all of Waterville.
“It was a very emotional ceremony for me,” George Mitchell said.
At Wednesday’s event, he recognized his parents for their hard work, dedication to family and emphasis they placed on education for him and his siblings.
“I’ve gotten a lot of attention and publicity, but my parents never really did,” he said, “and I think this country was built by people just like that.”
Mitchell said his mother really did not talk about the past when he was a child growing up in Waterville.
But he shared a story he had planned to tell during Wednesday’s ceremony but did not, after all.
“When we were kids growing up, my mother would say often, ‘You should see Lebanon. It is beautiful, the mountains, the forest, the ocean. The flowers smell so nice.’ She’d go on and on.”
“Near the end of her life, my sister accompanied her to Lebanon, to the small village in the mountains where she lived. They found the house she grew up in and relatives greeted her and they had a reception. They asked my mother to say a few words and she said, ‘You should see America. Maine is beautiful — the flowers, the ocean — they are so nice. America is such a nice country.’”
Regarding his job as special envoy to the Middle East peace process, Mitchell acknowledged that unrest in the region that has developed over the last few months is affecting his work. There is a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety around the various revolutions unfolding there, he said.
“The situation has always been difficult,” he said. “It is perhaps even more so now.”
But Mitchell said he believes it is important to continue efforts to reduce or head off violence and encourage Israel and Palestine to get together and talk.
Mitchell was born in Waterville in 1933, and grew up in a Lebanese and French community off Front Street,  along the Kennebec River in an area known as Head of Falls. He also had an older brother, Robert, who died of cancer in 1996.
When George was a small child, the family moved across the railroad tracks to 94 Front St., in a house that still stands and is just down the street from City Hall.
A graduate of Waterville High School, Bowdoin College and Georgetown University Law School, Mitchell served as Democratic Senate majority leader  from 1989 to 1995. After retiring from the senate, he joined a Washington law firm, served as  chairman of the Walt Disney Co. from 2004 to 2007 and in 1995, was appointed by President Clinton as special envoy to Northern Ireland, a country long divided by conflict over religious and political differences. He negotiated a peace agreement signed in 1998 and approved by public referendum.
In 2006, hew was asked by Major League Baseball Commissioner Bug Selig to investigate widespread use of performance enhancing drugs by ball players; his ensuing report was instrumental in ongoing efforts to curb steroid use.
A former judge, Mitchell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize after negotiating Northern Ireland’s peace agreement in 1998.
In the 1990s, he founded the Mitchell Scholarship Institute which awards a scholarship to a high school senior from every public high school in Maine, More than $8 million has been issued in scholarships so far.
In 1998, the Maine Community College System and University of Maine created an exchange program with Ireland called the George J. Mitchell Peace Scholarship. It allows students to spend a semester or academic year at Cork Institute of Technology or University College Cork.
Mitchell lives with his family in New York City and summers in Seal Harbor on Mt. Desert Island.

Amy Calder — 861-9247
[email protected]

 

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