WATERVILLE — Former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell Jr. was focused on education Friday as he visited his family, toured the school bearing his name and visited Educare Central Maine for the first time.

The Waterville native and former U.S. special-envoy to the Middle East helped dedicate buildings at Bates College in Lewiston Thursday and was to attend an annual dinner in South Portland Friday night to help raise money for his Mitchell Scholarship Institute.

The institute awards a scholarship to a high school senior annually from every public high school in the state.

“We raise about $150,000 each year from the dinner,” Mitchell said.

About $8 million in scholarships have been given to 1,800 students since the program started in 1994-95, he said.

“The number grows by 130 each year. It’s a great program and we’re just starting to get doctors, teachers, business people who have gone through the program,” he said.

Mitchell, 77, was talking Friday morning from his sister, Barbara Atkins’, sunny porch. They were joined by their brother Paul. Their brother John had visited earlier, they said.

Visible through the large glass windows was a tall Japanese elm tree Atkins had planted May 20, 1995, to memorialize her husband, Eddie, who had died three years earlier, and to mark the launching of the Mitchell Scholarship Institute.

“That’s the Mitchell Institute Tree,” Atkins said, of the tree that is now taller than the surrounding houses.

Since resigning as President Barack Obama’s special U.S envoy in May, Mitchell has been busy working full time at his law firm, DLA Piper, as well as traveling and speaking.

“I’m based in New York,” he said. “Our largest office is in London, so I go there a lot. I spoke Monday in Prague, the Czech Republic, at a UIEU (Universitas Indousa Esa Unggul) conference sponsored by the government there. I spoke about the relations between the U.S. and Europe and also about the Middle East.”

Mitchell said it is difficult to be optimistic in the short term about Middle East peace talks right now.

“But I do believe that both sides will come to realize that it is their self-interest to reach an agreement and end the conflict, and that hopefully, in the not too distant future, they’ll be able to resume negotiations and reach an agreement,” he said.

Not coming to an accord would be harmful to both sides, he said.

“There’s a huge risk of what might happen to both Israel and the Palestinians if they don’t reach an agreement, and I hope the leaders will come to recognize that and move forward.”

Mitchell has visited his family in Waterville regularly over the years, except the past two, when he was unable to visit as often because of his work in the Middle East. He also was unable to spend time at his summer home in Seal Harbor with his wife, Heather, son, Andrew, and daughter, Claire, he said.

But every year, he has made contributions to Waterville’s George J. Mitchell School, which was named after him in 1995. The public school houses kindergartners through third graders.

“I like to visit every year if I can, usually at this time of year,” he said.

He toured the school Friday with Atkins and Principal Allan Martin, chatting with students and staff and then walking through Educare Central Maine, which is attached to the school.

Mitchell said he was impressed with the early childhood education program, which prepares infants, toddlers and pre-kindergarten children for school. Waterville is one of 12 Educare centers in the country.

At Mitchell School, he met teacher Kathleen Nale and her third graders in a hallway and offered the children some advice for the future: “You can be anything you want to be and do anything you want to do,” he said. “Study hard and work hard and you’re bound to get ahead and be successful in life.”

He also offered them some Halloween advice, after asking that anyone who plans to go trick-or-treating raise his or her hand.

“Don’t eat too much candy,” he said. “And be safe.”

Afterward, Nale’s students reflected on who Mitchell is, saying he had helped negotiate peace in Northern Ireland in 1998. They children referred to the religious and political conflict as a fight.

“He did good things and if he didn’t stop the fight, then more people would keep dying,” said Hailey Stevens, 8. “But he did and they’re all calm and they’re not fighting anymore.”

Asked why their school, formerly Brookside School, was named after Mitchell, Jordan Thibodeau, also 8, said, “He’s a great man. He is really important.”

Said Destiny Bragdon, 8, “I think all of us are proud of him.”

Earlier, on Atkins’ porch, the three siblings shared some light moments, particularly in reminiscing about their childhood at Head of Falls, where George says their house was “right on the water and close to the Two Penny Bridge.”

The family later moved across the railroad tracks to a house at 94 Front St.

As is typical when the family gets together, the siblings engaged in good-natured repartee, often poking fun at each other. They also laughed a lot.

Asked what it was like growing up with all brothers (their brother, Robert, died in 1996), Atkins, the youngest, said, “At times, it was absolutely fabulous.”

George retorted, “I can’t remember the fabulous moments, but there must’ve been some.”

He described what he called the most exciting event that occurred during their childhood at Head of Falls.

“Paul was sliding on a sled with a friend of his and I think I was around three or four. I wanted a ride, so they put me on the front of the sled and Paul was steering. He steered right into one of the fence posts and it broke my leg in seven places.”

Their mother, Mary, came out and took Paul by the ear, scolding him, they recalled.

“My leg was in a big cast and I was on little crutches, and it was all Paul’s fault,” George said.

Atkins quipped that she never was allowed to sled because of that incident. Both she and George said that, nevertheless, their mother had a fond nickname for Paul: Sunshine.

“I was a ray of sunshine when I appeared,” Paul said.

George shot back, “Although the day of the sled, she called him a lot of things and ‘Sunshine’ was not any of them.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

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