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People

Former Marine Returns to El Toro This Time as a College Student
by Dave Reid

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From Dateline February 27, 2003

Herman Mitchell

Mitchell spent the last several years of his 28 years in the Marines at El Toro Marine base, now the site of Cal State Fullerton's El Toro Campus. He returned to El Toro last fall as a student, attending one of his classes in what was formerly his office as supply chief for the 3rd Marine Air Wing.

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Talk about big-time jitters on the first day of classes....

“My heart started pounding, I had goose bumps the size of Mt. Rushmore.”

That was the reaction of Herman “Mitch” Mitchell last fall when he drove through the gates of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station on his way to the opening day of classes at Cal State Fullerton's El Toro Campus.

No ordinary student, Mitchell, a Marine for 28 years, was returning to the former base where he was stationed prior to his retirement in 1998. He believes he is the only El Toro-based Marine to attend school there.

His crime and delinquency class was not only in the same building complex where the former master sergeant worked as supply chief for the 3rd Marine Air Wing, but it was the same room where he directed the shipment of weapons and equipment.

 

marine
This is a sample of photos he is compiling for a project documenting the history of the base.

It was a heavy-duty case of deja vu. As he entered the reconfigured room for the first time, images of friends, co-workers and officers flooded his mind.

He could hear voices and see visions in his mind's eye from the past as he passed the commanding general's office down the hall, now the office of George Giacumakis, director of the El Toro Campus.

It was a heavy-duty case of deja vu. As he entered the reconfigured room for the first time, images of friends, co-workers and officers flooded his mind.

He could hear voices and see visions in his mind's eye from the past as he passed the commanding general's office down the hall, now the office of George Giacumakis, director of the El Toro Campus.

The days of spit-and-polish uniforms and drills have changed to those of a deeply committed student. “I made myself a promise - that in spirit - I would join the class of '72 [the year he would have graduated from college if he had gone straight from high school] and earn a bachelor's degree.”

In addition to his classes, Mitchell is working on two special projects that draw upon his experiences in the Marine Corps and his tour of duty at El Toro

One project, with Giacumakis, involves compiling photos and other materials for a history of the base. He is also working with James R. Lasley, professor of criminal justice, on a project that compares and contrasts the military system of justice with the civilian justice system. “Most of us in the field are very familiar with our justice system and the way it works,” says Mitchell. “But not many are familiar with the military system.”

 

bomber squadron VMTB-232
Among the photos Mitchell has documented about the El Toro Marine Corps. Air Station is an aerial shot of the base runways taken during the 1950s, at bottom, and a photo of a base crash crew of the 1940s. Above is a picture of bomber squadron VMTB-232 taken at El Toro in June 1943.
air station aerial shot

After he completes undergraduate studies, Mitchell plants to pursue a master's or a law degree. “Not bad for an old guy,” he quips. He wants to work in an area of justice that deals with children. “I see so much injustice toward children, particularly minority children.”

His higher education quest began almost immediately after retirement from the Marines when he enrolled at Irvine Valley College. He transferred to Cal State Fullerton in spring 2002 and continued in the fall at the El Toro Campus.

Mitchell's commitment to education was underscored in dramatic fashion two years ago when he was invited to speak on “Black Pride in the Community” before the Orange County chapter of the NAACP. The import of the occasion and the real message behind his talk hit him like a ton of bricks just as he arose from his chair.

“I had just started school,” he says, “and then something happened when I walked to the podium. I asked myself, 'What gives you that pride?'”

“I got to the podium and told everyone that I had spent a week on my remarks, but not until now did I realize it was the wrong speech.” He took the prepared speech out of his pocket and tore it up in front a gasping audience.

“I told them, 'I want to talk to you about education because the key to pride in our community is to educate our children.'” He went on to deliver a message on the importance of education that made a lasting impression. A nuclear physicist in the group later told him the speech inspired him to return to school.

Born in Chicago and raised by grandparents in Columbus, Ga., Mitchell once dropped out of high school. His grandfather physically picked him up and took him back. “He said he wasn't going to let that happen to me.”

Following high school, he enlisted in the Marines. His tours of duty have taken him to various places around the world and given him life experiences and a perspective that separates him from younger students.

Besides education, another of his passions is music - particularly jazz. He is a drummer and singer in his group called Blueprint, and is the only musician in his family.

Mitchell got hooked on the drums as a child when he heard a marching band playing in a parade. His grandfather helped him get his first set of drums, and he's been playing ever since.

“I don't think my grandfather ever thought my interest in drumming would last as long as it has,” he says.

All through high school, Mitchell stayed after class for band practice and then loaded his drums on a city bus that had its last stop four miles from his home. He walked the rest of the way with the drums.

Mitchell has high praise for his professors, who often chat with him after class. “I wish I could have done it earlier,” says the 3.75 GPA student. His enthusiasm has spread to his wife, Antania, who he encouraged to quit her job and return to school. She will eventually transfer to Cal State Fullerton.

When asked about his successes in education, Mitchell can only say, “It just goes to show, you can teach an old dog new tricks.” Semper Fidelis.

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