Alf Engen Museum honors Dick Mitchell, legendry skier and pilot
Parkite lived life on the edge
September 24, 2017
When the Alf Engen Ski Museum honored it's four 2017 new honorees into the Intermountain Ski Hall of Fame on Wednesday, most of its inductees' photo displays presented their subject through the lens of skiing. Snapshots showed their subjects on the podium, holding up trophies.
That was not the case for Dick Mitchell, Ogden-born, who spent the last 35 years of his life in Park City until his death in 2015.
That's not to say Mitchell wasn't a talented skier. He won the NCAA downhill championships in 1953 as captain of the University of Utah Ski Team, and earned a place on the U.S. Olympic Ski Team for a competition in Cortina d'Ampazzo, Italy in 1956.
One side of his photo display showed those highlights of him as a young man, shredding slopes in Utah and Europe, but the other side was nearly devoid of skiing, and of winter altogether.
In one photo, Mitchell wears a T-shirt and sits at the helm of boat in mixed weather, a rainbow streaming down behind him. The caption says he is sailing alone across the pacific from San Francisco to Hawaii. In another shot, a haggard figure sits exhausted near a chart of landing zones, his curly hair askew.
In this photo, Mitchell is an assistant military attaché in Saigon. The date is April, 1975, just days before the American Embassy was overrun by North Vietnamese troops. When the fall came, Mitchell was in charge of the evacuation of civilian and military families. He was on the last helicopter out.
In yet another photo, Mitchell sits in a small, open-top racecar, waiving the checkered flag. He won four of six races he competed in.
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Mitchell grew up in Ogden, went to the University of Utah, then joined the Air Force. After learning French, he flew 149 combat missions over Vietnam in an F-105 bomber. He was shot down twice before becoming a military the assistant Air Force attaché. Over his military career he was awarded a Purple Heart, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Silver Star, a Meritorious Service Medal, and Commendation Medal.
Two years after evacuating Tan Son Nhut Air Base as the Vietcong took Saigon, he retired from the military and started sailing, then racing cars, then he moved to Park City in 1980 and lived there until his death of multiple myeloma in 2015.
During those last years of his life, Tim and Mari Laughlin were Dick's neighbors.
They described him as a complex character. The words "cranky" and "irascible" came up a few times, as did "fascinating" and "accomplished," and "gentleman."
They lived next to him when he was president of the homeowners association and when he built his own airplane, and through the end, when he had to take breaks to rest while mowing the lawn. One time, when Dick was very ill, he asked the Laughlins to drive him to the hospital.
"It probably took him a day to get to the point to where he was going to come over and ask us to do it," Tim said, alluding to Mitchell's independent streak.
Wednesday night, his son, John Mitchell looked over the pictures carefully.
"I hope I'm ready," John said, dressed in a suit and boutonniere. "I have to get up there and do some public speaking – for two minutes. I have done Toastmasters, so maybe I will be able to make it through."
From an early age he remembers being brought up to the ski slopes for training.
"I got the impression he wanted to turn me into an Olympic skier," John said. "He had me training at an early age. I didn't like it at first, but I learned to love it."
John said he didn't have the same attitude toward life his father did. For instance, at the stipulation of his father's last will, John read a statement at Dick's funeral, explaining his ethos: "When in doubt, go full speed."
John, tall and with his father's curly hair, said he didn't ascribe to the full-speed life, and going through his father's pictures for the event was difficult.
"It was rough," he said. "I maybe wasn't quite ready to do that, but we had to do it, had to bring back all the memories. But he would have loved to have been here tonight, even though he was a modest man. He had a certain amount of healthy vanity. A lot of people will tell you that."
He stooped down and looked at a black and white picture on the front of the display, which showed his father skiing. Dick was stooped in a half-crouch as he cornered on hard-packed snow in Cortina.
"Oh, yeah, look at that picture," he said. "Look at his grimace there, his chin poking out. I'll bet his skis were chattering like crazy."