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Swisher, That 1944 Team & The American Dream

August 1, 2018

photo courtesy of Colby College

They’re burying Swisher today.

After a long and remarkable life, John “Swisher” Mitchell died last week at the age of 91 in his hometown of Waterville, ME.

Before his decades-long stint as the yin to legendary Colby College men’s coach Dick Whitmore’s excitable yang, Mitchell was the smart, tough, cocky, fearless point guard who captained what was arguably the best schoolboy basketball team in Maine’s history.

In 1944—in the midst of a 67 game winning streak—Waterville High went 27-0, winning both a state and a New England championship. Their claim to the title of “best team ever” rests on that New England championship: they were, and remain to this day, the only Maine team to win a six-state New England tournament. As Waterville native Fred Stubbert recalls, “The way they beat teams; they didn’t just eke by, they killed them. They absolutely demolished them. The ball hardly ever touched the floor. They were really a team.”

So there’s been a lot of basketball talk this week in and around Waterville, and all across those parts of the internet inhabited by the tens of thousands of people whose lives were touched by John Mitchell’s wit, and competitive fire, and grace, and good humor, and kindness, and yes, his bottomless font of basketball knowledge and stories.

I have my own Swisher stories, but today I find myself thinking instead about the American Dream.

Because John Mitchell and his teammates did more than set an impossibly high standard for athletic excellence in Waterville. For those of us growing up there in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, they were living proof that the American Dream was true.

Here’s where some of the players on that 1944 team started out in life:

  • John and his big brother Paul (who died earlier this year) grew up in Head of Falls, the city’s poorest neighborhood, literally on the wrong side of the railroad tracks that ran through town. Their mother was an immigrant who never really learned to speak English; their father was the orphaned son of immigrants.
  • John Jabar, a fiery swingman, was also a product of that small, tightly-knit Maronite Christian community Lebanese immigrants built on the banks of the Kennebec River.
  • Len Saulter, the team’s big, burly center, lived in the South End, raised by his mother. Growing up in a French-Canadian ghetto in a single-parent household was about as low a rung as existed on the socio-economic ladder of 1940s Yankee, Protestant-dominated Waterville.
  • Teddy Shiro, the undersized guard who never took a shot he didn’t think was going in, was Jewish. All were born in the late 1920s, just a few short years after the Maine Ku Klux Klan (which stood for undying opposition to “Koons, Kikes & Katholics”) held its state convention just outside Waterville, complete with cross burnings and an attendance estimated at 15,000 (equaling the city’s population at the time).

And here’s where they ended up:

  • John “Swisher” Mitchell was the long-time assistant principal at Waterville Junior High, and even longer-time assistant men’s basketball coach at Colby College.
  • Paul Mitchell owned GHM, one of the largest insurance agencies in town, and served on numerous city boards.
  • John Jabar founded and ran one of the city’s most successful law firms.
  • Len Saulter ran one of the largest mills in town.
  • Ted Shiro was a successful restauranteur and hotel operator.

They had families and owned homes. They, and many of their friends and classmates, were the first generation in their families to complete high school and go on to college. They, each in their own way, were pillars of the community—serving on boards of directors (especially the Boys’ Club which had been their second home when growing up), some getting involved in local and state politics, others playing prominent roles in the city’s business community, all taking an interest in and ownership of the city (and state, and nation) in which they’d grown up owning next to nothing.

For those of us growing up in their shadows, they were living proof that the world could change, and change for the better. That the people who’d always been in charge didn’t necessarily remain in charge. That in America, those who had nothing could become something.

We knew this in our bones because in Waterville, ME in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, half the people running our little town were descendants of people who’d been running it for the previous century and a half. But the other half were people like the Mitchells and the Jabars and the Shiros and the Saulters and the Josephs and the Rosenthals and the Careys and the Brodys and the Fortiers and the Levines and the Berniers and the Lunders and the Poiriers, all descendants of people who’d never run anything in this country, who’d been run out of whatever country they came from, and who weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms when they arrived here.

But because of their families and their churches and their temples, because of the Boys Club and the public schools and the GI Bill and FHA loans, because of their hard work and native intelligence and varied talents, because in America they had a chance to walk into an arena or onto a basketball court or into a classroom and be treated more or less like an equal, they got to prove themselves, and in doing so they improved our community in ways beyond measure.

It was a good way to grow up.

From → History, Politics, Sports

  1. Reading this with Mike as we get ready for Swisher’s funeral and marveling at your writing! ❤️

  2. Lynda Stocks permalink

    wonderful piece of writing – thanks

  3. Norman Reef permalink

    All the articles speak of Swisher’s talent in basketball! Let”s not forget that he was kind, compassionate, fun loving and loyal. No words will really describe this Giant among men
    and to George and Barbara we say may he rest in peace and be rewarded for his exemplary life.

  4. Paul ferris permalink

    Thanks Pamela. I didn’t know.

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