Dr. Eugene Mitchell: Surgeon, civic leader, owner of St. Louis Argus
Dr. Eugene N. Mitchell, a general surgeon and newspaper publisher with movie-star good looks and the charm to match, died Friday at Grand Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in St. Louis. He was 78.
He had suffered a stroke several months ago said his wife, Betty. Private services were held Tuesday.
At one point, Dr. Mitchell led two of the most powerful African-American institutions in St. Louis, Homer G. Phillips Hospital and the St. Louis Argus. “Gene was a very talented and gifted surgeon and the Argus was once the dominant African-American newspaper,” said his longtime friend, Dr. Donald M. Suggs, a dentist and publisher of the St. Louis American. The two met when both were young doctors at "Homer G."
“He was a very important figure in the entire community, but the black community in particular, for a number of years,” Dr. Suggs added.
While still practicing medicine, Dr. Mitchell took the helm of the venerable newspaper his grandfather co-founded in 1912 and led it during the civil rights era.
“Under Gene, the Argus achieved greatness; it was the best African-American newspaper in the U.S,” said Gene Liss, publisher of the Limelight magazine and newspaper and former owner of the Argus’ sales arm in the 1960s and 1970s.
During the ‘70s, Liss said, ad revenues sometimes hit $100,000 for just one issue.
Dr. Mitchell “was unique and decades ahead of his time in influence and power,” Liss said.
Dr. Mitchell was one of the first African Americans to become a member of the Mysterious Order of the Veiled Prophet. The secret society had been founded as an all-white, philanthropic organization in 1878, and its membership was reserved for the elite.
In 1979, 101 years later, Dr. Mitchell and two other African-American physicians – Dr. William C. Banton II and Dr. Jerome Williams – became Veiled Prophet members.
A year earlier, Dr. Mitchell had been the first black elected to the board of directors of Mercantile Trust Company N.A., an achievement worthy of mention in the April 13, 1978, issue of Jet Magazine.
Another "first" which polished Dr. Mitchell’s image came in 1967, when he traveled to Chicago to purchase the first car from the first African-American General Motors Oldsmobile dealership. The franchise was owned by Albert W. Johnson and this, too, was heralded in Jet magazine.
Dr. Mitchell’s many other civic ventures included serving as a vice chair of the 1979 United Way of Greater St. Louis fundraising campaign.
He was the second African-American to receive a four-year medical degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia Medical School, where he graduated with honors.
He was from a family of leaders and trendsetters.
When his father, Frank, who had once managed the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, died in 1970, his obituary was picked up by the Associated Press and ran in the New York Times.
A hundred eyes watching
His grandfather and great-uncle, brothers William and Joseph Everett (J.E.) Mitchell, founded the St. Louis Argus. Dr. Mitchell’s grandmother, Nannie Mitchell, would step in when her husband, William died in 1945; she became the driving force behind her son, Frank Mitchell, who became publisher of the Argus, and later, Dr. Mitchell, the son of Frank and Zelma Mitchell Harris (who remarried after her husband’s death).
Like the 100-eyed, mythical Greek giant for which it was named, the Argus came into being to keep watch. It watched the goings-on in the African-American community and published the stories that would help the influx of southern blacks who were pouring into St. Louis deal with the vageries of northern segregation.
The Argus earned the coveted Russwurm award, named for John Russwurm, one of the founders of the first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, which launched in 1827.
Dr. Mitchell continued the tradition of advocating for greater educational opportunities, political participation and full civil rights for blacks.
Steven Korris was city editor for the Argus from 1979 to 1981.
“It was an exciting time and those were golden years,” Korris said. “He was very involved with his medical practice and had a number of people who depended on him. But when it was time to put the paper out on Wednesday night, he would come in and the work would build to one giant burst of production.
“Decisions would be made. He established priorities, wrote headlines and directed the layout.”
During that time, the battle raged to save Homer G. Phillips, one of the country’s most prestigious African-American medical institutions and Dr. Mitchell had a very personal interest. He had served as the hospital’s medical director in the late '60s and early '70s.
The Argus was the only newspaper to come out against Mayor James Conway, during whose tenure the hospital was closed.
The Argus endorsed Vince Schoemehl.
“We never let up on Conway,” Korris said. “The decision to close Homer G. was a terrific blow to the economy and the soul of the north side and Conway was the person who decided it had to close.”
Schoemehl won, but he did not keep his campaign promise to reopen the hospital.
A Shakespearean tragedy
Eugene Nathaniel Mitchell was born in St. Louis on Sept. 6, 1934, into a dynasty; a renowned family of doers.
He graduated from Sumner High School in 1951 and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from St. Louis University. He earned his medical degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia Medical School in 1960. He interned at the Medical College of Wisconsin and did his residency at Homer G. Phillips Hospital before going into private practice while simultaneously running the Argus.
For a time, he had a flourishing medical practice and a thriving newspaper business and by all accounts, he was adept at both. He even looked the part.
“He was quite handsome,” Liss said. “He was taller, better looking and better educated than most of the people he stood next to and he had blue eyes like his grandmother, Nannie Mitchell. He was brilliant, one of the smartest people I ever met.”
His life, however, devolved into what Liss called “a story of Shakespearean proportions.”
It would eventually lead him to sell the Argus in 2003.
In the mid-70s, Liss maintains, Dr. Mitchell was "targeted by negative forces that dragged him away from the higher ends of the community."
Those "forces," were the rising drug culture, to which many people say Dr. Mitchell succumbed.
But only for a time.
Faith and family
Dr. Mitchell eventually became a convert to Islam. In keeping with the faith, his wife sought serenity as she prepared for his burial.
But, she said simply, “it’s still so hard.”
A traditional Muslim graveside service was held at Lake Charles Park Cemetery Tuesday.
Dr. Mitchell was preceded in death by his parents, and his five brothers and sisters.
In addition to his wife of 50 years, Dr. Mitchell is survived by Eugene N. “Butch” Mitchell Jr., St. Louis and a daughter, Toni Marie Hayes, St. Louis, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.