The evolution of Western Carolina since World War II is well-documented, but only a few observers have lived that transformation and can tell it today from firsthand experiences. Stedman Mitchell turned 94 this past April and has lived nearly 70 of those years in Cullowhee, where he has witnessed the growth of the institution from a teachers college with a couple hundred students to a vibrant regional university serving nearly 10,000 students. Along the way, Mitchell has known or worked for nine of the school’s 10 presidents and chancellors, including its recognized founding father, Robert Lee Madison.
WCU has had its share of personalities – from administrators to coaches and sports heroes to students – who have reached the pinnacle of their chosen fields, and Mitchell has watched most of them come and go as a vibrant walkin’, talkin’ history book of the last seven decades.
Sted, the name he prefers, has had several monikers and as many official titles since arriving in Cullowhee in the early 1940s. His friends, who number in the hundreds, agree that the “Sage of Buzzard Roost” has a personality makeup that includes the humor of Andy Griffith with a touch of Larry the Cable Guy, along with Mark Twain’s storytelling talent and Will Rogers’ philosophy.
Local residents witness his energy on a daily early morning basis as Sted drives himself and sidekick Robert Lanning up Cullowhee Mountain – an hour round-trip – to his cabin, where they tinker, build, cut firewood and grow a full garden.
Mitchell, a native of Surry County, came to Cullowhee during World War II as an aspiring farmer with a young wife and infant daughter, but soon sold his “cows, pickup and tractor” and took his first job with Western Carolina Teachers College as manager of the college farm and dairy. “We produced a lot of the food and all the milk for our students, and before I bankrupted the operation, I figured out that we could buy canned vegetables and milk cheaper that we could produce them,” he said.
From there, he became the school’s grounds superintendant and then purchasing agent before he was named cafeteria manager in the 1950s. That position evolved into food service director, which is the role that made Mitchell a local legend.
“Mashed Potatoes,” another nickname bestowed on Mitchell by the students he served over three decades in Moore, Brown and Dodson cafeterias, recently reminisced about his WCU career following the March dedication of the Courtyard Dining Hall, the university’s $17.6 million state-of-the-art food service facility.
“We had three big enrollment booms – after World War II, in the mid-1960s and now – and each time it challenged our food service operation and brought about big changes and new facilities, like Moore in the early ’50s, Brown in late ’50s, Dodson in the ’60s and now this absolutely amazing place,” he said while touring the new dining hall.
Mitchell’s staff of 120 full-time employees served 1.5 million meals a year at Brown and Dodson in the mid-1970s. Today, WCU’s food service partner, Aramark, and the franchised food venues on campus – Chick-fil-A, Papa John’s, McAlister’s, Panda Express, Freshens and Einstein’s Bagels – employ more than 300 and have approximately 7,500 transactions daily.
Katie Deitz, WCU’s food service dietician under Mitchell, remembers her former boss with fondness. “He was a very good businessman who was strict, but very fair, gave his employees an opportunity to advance and made sure everyone understood that the students were their customers,” she said. “And I am sure a lot of students would never have been able to pay their college expenses had it not been for
Mr. Mitchell giving them jobs.”
Deitz also commended Mitchell for his interest in giving back to the community. “He tried to help our community in his hirings and in buying produce. I remember a local farmer offering to sell tomatoes for 50 cents a bushel and Mr. Mitchell giving him $1 per bushel and saying, ‘That’s a good deal for both of us,’” she said.
Gurney Chambers ’61, dean emeritus of WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions, recalls eating quality meals in Brown Cafeteria as a student from 1957 to 1961. “One of the inalienable rights of students is to complain about the food that is served on campus,” Chambers said. “Many were never satisfied, but Stedman always listened and did what he could to accommodate their tastes.” Chambers and Chuck Wooten ’73, WCU vice chancellor for administration and finance, say their mouths still water at the thought of Mitchell’s famous Sunday lunch menu that included steaks, fried squash and strawberry shortcake.
Both Mitchell and Wooten agree that the “three square meals a day” concept would not fit into the lifestyle of students of the 21st century. “Today, students expect continuous dining opportunities that extend into the late-night or early morning hours,” said Wooten. Mitchell concurs. “Our younger people are growing up in a fast food society with diverse appetites and expect the same when they go to college, which is quite different from the students of 40 years ago,” he said.
When asked for his recipe for reaching 94 in good health, energetic and able to tell stories and jokes with the best of them, Mitchell says, “good genes help.” He has no magic formula to stop the aging process. “I don’t have a special diet,” he said. “I eat what I like – and a lot of it. What I do just comes natural, keep moving, staying involved with people and busy doing things I like, and something I’m really good at – laughing a lot.”
Steve White ’67, a neighbor of Stedman Mitchell, is retired director of sports information at WCU.