Dave Mitchell’s once dark brown hair is now gray and perhaps a little thinner on top. The bemused expression of a young college professor has been replaced by a look that leads you to think he knows a thing or two. One thing, however, has not changed – his affinity for a good pipe.
With over 35 years in the newspaper business – an amalgamation of late nights, long-running legal battles and covering the goings-on in a small California community – Mitchell was recently honored with the Eugene Cervi Award by the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE) for his outstanding career of public service through community journalism while adhering to the highest standards of the craft.
Mitchell taught at Upper Iowa University from 1968-1970 covering courses such as English, world literature and journalism, and was the advisor for The Collegian. In the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, race was a major issue on the political front. Mitchell, who is from the West Coast, had previously taken a temporary teaching position at Leesburg High School in Florida. At the time, it and many other schools in the state remained mostly segregated. At Upper Iowa, he found something that seemed a world away from the chaos in which the rest of the country was embroiled.
“Upper Iowa was going out of its way to include African-Americans in the student body,” said Mitchell. “One outgrowth of Upper Iowa’s enlightened attitude was the creation of a black student union called The Brotherhood. Another result was an impressive ‘Black Night’ variety show in February 1969, as well as a visit by civil rights leader, Julian Bond.”
While in Leesburg, Mitchell had taken part in a drive to register black voters in an effort to unseat a violently racist county sheriff. Although they lost the election, it was his work in the civil rights movement that at least in part led Upper Iowa’s administration to name Mitchell the faculty advisor to The Brotherhood.
“On my father’s side, my family for generations had been unhappy with the wrongs done to blacks in the United States,” he said. “My great-grandfather Luke Parsons was an abolitionist and a member of John Brown’s army. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the 6th Kansas Cavalry and commanded a Union regiment of Native Americans. An uncle, Samuel Dexter Houston, was also active in the fight against slavery both before and during the war. Racial injustice likewise upset my mother, an immigrant from Canada, and my father, so it was often discussed in our home.
“Living in the segregated South, however, was a revelation for me. Until I worked in Florida, I hadn’t realized just how ubiquitous the brutalities of racism still were.”
The Vietnam War was raging at this time, as were anti-war demonstrations at campuses around the country. “Feelings against the war were strong at Upper Iowa too, but there was none of the chaos that occurred in some places. The biggest anti-war demonstration in Fayette that I remember was a march from campus to the one federal facility in town, which happened to be the post office. Once we got there, we turned around and marched the few blocks back to campus. All very peaceable.”
Mitchell said his fondest memories of his UIU days were hashing over books and writers with fellow faculty members Lou Wolff, Bob Schenck and Gary Jones, with whom he shared an office. They each brought a slightly different perspective to the discussion.
“Some of my best times with students often occurred when each issue of The Collegian came out and we could admire our handiwork,” he said. “On occasion, however, we cursed it. I remember when a new coach told a student reporter that Fayette ‘seems to be thinking progressively.’ Unfortunately, the coach had a bit of a lisp, and the student heard, ‘sinking progressively,’ so that’s what appeared in print. The coach was not pleased.”
After two years at Upper Iowa, Mitchell and his wife Cathy, who worked in the public information office at UIU while they lived in Fayette, left Upper Iowa University for the Council Bluffs area where Mitchell took a position as a reporter for the Nonpareil. Holding a bachelor’s degree in English and master’s degree in communications with a specialty in print media, both from Stanford, he felt that while he was definitely using his undergrad courses at Upper Iowa, he might do better working in his graduate field.
They later moved to the Sonora, Calif., area where Mitchell covered Tuolumne County government for the daily newspaper there. Beginning in 1973, he edited the weekly Sebastopol Times in Sonoma County, Calif., where Cathy was the paper’s feature editor.
The couple bought The Point Reyes Light in 1975 and together owned it for six years. In 1979, The Light won the Pulitzer gold medal for Meritorious Public Service for an exposé of Synanon Incorporated, a onetime drug-rehabilitation program that changed its name to the Church of Synanon and evolved into a violent cult.
The Light began reporting on Synanon, which was headquartered in the nearby town of Marshall, in early 1978 as violent incidents involving followers began coming to the newspaper’s attention. At the height of the violence, Synanon members tried to kill Los Angeles attorney Paul Morantz by placing a rattlesnake in his mailbox. Morantz survived being bitten and, in a subsequent article, Mitchell revealed that Synanon founder Charles Dederich had been calling for an attack on Morantz, who three weeks earlier had won a $300,000 judgment against the cult.
The night Dederich was arrested on murder charges, an armed sheriff’s deputy slept at the Mitchell residence.
In 1980, Mitchell published a book, “The Light on Synanon: How a Country Weekly Exposed a Corporate Cult,” which was then made into a two-hour movie for CBS, Attack on Fear.
Synanon lawyers filed six libel suits against the Mitchells asking for a total of $1.032 billion. Ultimately, an out-of-court settlement was reached – with Synanon paying the Mitchells $100,000.
“Throughout our exposé of violence and other criminal activity by Synanon, our focus was always getting government, especially the criminal justice system, to intervene,” said Mitchell. “It took so long to happen, however, that for a while I despaired of our efforts ever succeeding. However, when Synanon tried to murder (Morantz), the crime was so bizarre that law enforcement finally had to take notice.”
At the end of 2013, Tomales Regional History Center published, “The Light on the Coast: 65 Years of News Big and Small as Reported in The Point Reyes Light,” written mostly by Mitchell. A few months later ISWNE invited him to speak about the book at its annual conference held in Durango, Colo., this past summer.
Several days before Mitchell was scheduled to leave his home in Point Reyes Station for the conference, the ISWNE executive director called to make sure he would be there. “(He told me) I would be receiving the Eugene Cervi Award,” said Mitchell. “That was astonishing news because it is the highest international award in the English-speaking world for lifelong achievement as the editor of a weekly newspaper.
“I had belonged to ISWNE for more than a dozen years but had never attended an annual conference before and did not know the other members. What I found was almost instant camaraderie with 100 or so editors from all over the United States and Canada, as well as from England, Scotland, and Australia. I was especially fascinated by the degree to which editors everywhere wrestle with the same problems, ranging from ethical dilemmas to covering major disasters.”
Mitchell and Cathy divorced in 1981, selling The Point Reyes Light. He reported for two years for the San Francisco Examiner, where he spent three months of 1982 in Central America as part of a news team reporting on upheaval in the region. Mitchell was assigned to El Salvador and Guatemala. He returned in 1983 as a freelancer for The Examiner. Then, on the last day of 1983, Mitchell reacquired The Light and owned it until November 2005.
Mitchell will turn 71 in November. He is retired and spends much of his time on wildlife photography and on commentaries about the small towns of his area, which he publishes in his blog SparselySageAndTimely.com.