A Life's Story
December 24, 2022
Lighting way with passion for community involvement
Thomas Mitchell, 88, was Winnipeg Canoe Club mainstay
By: Janine LeGal
You don’t have to be loud, bold or dramatic to leave a mark. Sometimes, it’s the quiet ones, the ones who don’t say much, the ones not getting the spotlight, the awards or the accolades who make a difference.
It could even be something as simple as hanging Christmas lights outside your home. Big Christmas lights.
Thomas Irwin Mitchell was one of those people. He not only hung the lights on his home that brought neighbours and Winnipeggers from near and afar to admire, he also did it as part of his job.
The grandfather of six and great-grandfather of two never sought any kind of limelight, but he did enjoy bringing it to others — especially when it meant bringing joy or helping in some way.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Mitchell worked as an electrician at the Eaton’s in downtown Winnipeg, where part of his job involved installing massive seasonal decorations on the outside of the main building.
Sometimes, he would bring some of those decorations home, transforming the family dwelling into an elaborate showpiece and generating great interest and attention from passersby on an otherwise quiet street.
“They used giant aluminum stars with bright lights inside of them,” son Tom says of the Christmas decorations.
“It was (an eight-storey) building. They were almost blinding. He brought two of them home and put them on our house on Kingston Crescent. Our house was covered from the roof to the ground with these giant stars. Everybody in the neighbourhood came by,” Tom says.
“He was just a guy that liked to do things for people, his father was the same way. When I started remembering and taking notes, I realized what he did, that was his thing, he was an incredibly giving person.”
Mitchell died July 25 at Hospice House in Kelowna, B.C., at 88.
Born in Winnipeg in 1934, Mitchell grew up in Elmwood. In 1954, at 19, he married and moved to Kingston Crescent in St. Vital with wife Pamela. Together they had two sons and a daughter.
Described by his son as extremely intelligent, Mitchell was also very shy, but he still followed his passion for community connection and volunteering.
During his lifetime, Mitchell changed careers several times, working in sales for the Manitoba Market Gardeners in the early ’60s, then being employed with the automotive industry as a Goodyear franchisee in Winnipeg, and as a representative for White Farm in Saskatoon.
Mitchell then started his own company, designing and installing irrigation systems, as well as construction materials for golf courses and tennis facilities. His company designed and installed the system for the John Blumberg Golf Course (Headingley) and Hecla Golf Course, as well as helping build the current home of the Winnipeg Lawn Tennis Club.
It was Mitchell’s company that built the clay tennis courts at the former Winnipeg Canoe Club, where the Pan Am Games competition was held in 1967. He was also instrumental in purchasing the racing boats from the Pan Ams for the WCC, which further developed its flat-water racing program.
He even helped bring the Davis Cup tennis tournament to Winnipeg in 1970.
Supporting canoe racing across Canada was a passion for Mitchell. His interest in the WCC made it a second home for him.
He gave the organization much of his time and skills, and he made a mark by amalgamating the Winnipeg Badminton Club with the WCC in 1971, and building the extensive racquet facilities.
He became commodore of the Canoe Club in 1972, one of his proudest moments, and brought the Canadian sprint canoe championships to Winnipeg in 1974.
“He worked so hard. He was passionate about community involvement,” Tom says.
Mitchell was also dedicated to parenting and building memories with his family.
Tom vividly remembers spending quality time with his father in his younger years. Together, they competed in the Voyageur Canoe Race in 1972, the oldest canoe race in the country, resulting in a most memorable father-son experience.
“It was 67 miles from Winnipeg to Selkirk and back,” his son says. “We trained for months. It took two days. We had to carry complete packs, tents and supplies and carry them over the dam and back, it was quite a race. He was determined, that’s one way to describe him.
“He taught me never to give up.”
After retirement, Mitchell moved to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, and stayed for 14 years. Well into his 70s, he continued to put his commitment to community giving into practice and volunteered to build irrigation systems in Mexico, before making his final home in Kelowna.
Amidst all of his contributions to various communities, perhaps Mitchell’s greatest gift was the lasting impact he left on his son, and the lessons learned to be shared with future generations.
“The funny thing I learned is that participation in your kid’s life is important,” says Tom, a father of three. “Because he was so involved in a lot of things, he wasn’t necessarily always there, but I learned from him that it’s good to volunteer, to participate in a lot of things, but family comes first.”
As a parent, Mitchell not only put out large Christmas decorations, but at the same time, also provided a childhood to cherish.
“He didn’t have a fancy education. He liked to be involved. He just wanted to leave a mark,” Tom says. “He gave me the greatest childhood I could have had on Kingston Crescent, to grow up in such a neat place, to feel supported. I was always very proud of him.”