Nov. 11, 1935-Dec. 19, 2018
Palo Alto, California
David Mitchell, a Palo Alto attorney, environmental advocate and community volunteer, died on Wednesday, Dec. 19, after a battle with lymphoma. He was 83 years old.
Mitchell was a tax and estate attorney; a husband, father and avid hiker; an Eagle Scout; a longtime board member for the Peninsula Open Space Trust; a fixture in the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto; and above all else, someone who was devoted to serving others, family and friends said in interviews on Friday.
"David felt very lucky to have been able to participate in a small way to increase philanthropy in the Valley, while pursuing his many interests," his wife of nearly 58 years, Lynn Mitchell, said he communicated before he died this week, surrounded by family.
Mitchell was born in Berkeley but was raised in Los Angeles, his family said. He joined the Cub Scouts during World War II, then the Boy Scouts and later Explorer Scouts in San Gabriel. Through those groups, he went on frequent overnight camping trips and developed an early passion for the outdoors. In 1951, he became an Eagle Scout, the highest distinction possible as a Boy Scout. He went on to attend Stanford University on a full undergraduate scholarship funded through the Dofflemyer Scholarship Fund for Eagle Scouts, according to his family.
Mitchell also earned a full scholarship to attend Harvard Law School, where he met Lynn, who was pursuing a graduate degree in education. They went on to live and work in Los Angeles — he as a beginning lawyer and she as a teacher — before an offer to start a law firm in San Jose drew them to Northern California. Mitchell was a founding member of Palo Alto-based firm Hopkins & Carley and since 1993 had practiced with Hoge, Fenton, Jones & Appel in San Jose. He worked primarily in estate planning, family business succession and nonprofit law, his family said.
Mitchell devoted much of his practice to protecting the environment for future generations. He represented families that owned apricot, prune and cherry orchards on the Peninsula as well as major almond growers and dairy farmers in California, according to his daughter, Sarah Mitchell. For 23 years he served on the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) board of directors, lending his legal expertise to the complicated process of people leaving their land to open space, Lynn said.
"He saw the beauty of this place and didn't want to see it turn into Los Angeles," where houses have been built throughout the hills, Sarah Mitchell said Friday.
Mitchell instilled in his two daughters a deep love for nature. Most family vacations were spent hiking in the Sierra Nevadas, they said. During a walk in the hills Friday morning, his daughter, Betsy Kinney, reflected on the land around her and its connection to her father.
"I feel it's important for us as a family to go spend some time in a place that exists as it is now because of the work that he did with POST," she said.
Walter Moore, the president of the Peninsula Open Space Trust, said the organization "relied heavily" on Mitchell's "sharp intellect" over the course of three decades for legal advice on estates deals and land projects. Mitchell served on POST's audit committee until just last week, Moore said.
Mitchell was so integral to the organization that Moore couldn't call out a specific project or initiative that exemplified his impact.
"Part of what we so very much need in today's world is people who care about the community and act on that in a very sophisticated way, lending their brilliant for-profit business expertise to very altruistic, very socially minded causes," Moore said.
"It's people like him that set the foundation of how strong a community Palo Alto was and of course it would become," he added.
Mitchell's daughters described him as a man of depth, integrity and quiet intelligence. (Also, he was funny, they said, playing pranks on others and constantly coming up with puns.) He taught his children to always do the right thing, they said, from the big picture (social responsibility and community service) to the small picture (never jaywalk or speed while driving). He also played piano and exposed them to a wide range of music at a young age, from classical music to the musical-social justice of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.
"His heart was really an activist's heart," Sarah said. "He had a lot of reverence. He cared deeply that humanity had justice."
This left a lasting mark on his daughters, who chose careers in the service of others: Sarah as a midwife and Kinney as an elementary school teacher. Mitchell also inspired service in his grandchildren. One grandson is an Eagle Scout (Mitchell gave him the award last year), another is on his way to that achievement and his granddaughter wants to become a doctor.
Mitchell was also a "pillar" of the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto, said Senior Minister David Howell. He led capital campaigns and building projects and served on search committees, including the one that called Howell to be senior pastor, he said. Mitchell volunteered his time and was a frequent source of "advice and wisdom" for many members of the congregation, Howell said.
Susan Hartzel, who met Mitchell through the church in 1963, said that he was "invaluable in every kind of issue that the church faced.
"Everybody trusted him," she said. "Everybody admired him."
Mitchell was also a longtime board member for the Palo Alto Community Fund and volunteered with the Rotary Club of San Jose, the Stanford Historical Society and Friends of Music at Stanford. He and his wife won Avenidas' 19th annual Lifetimes of Achievement Award in 2008. In 2015, they won the Boy Scouts of America's Distinguished Citizens Award, given to those whose contributions have had lasting effects on the Peninsula community.
For her husband's memorial, Lynn plans to use a quote from Albert Schweitzer, an Alsatian philosopher who won the Nobel Peace Prize: "One thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve."
Mitchell is survived by his wife Lynn; daughters Sarah Mitchell and Betsy Kinney; and grandchildren Andrea Meyer, Rowan Kinney and Nialo Kinney.