Hundreds Wish Decoy Duck-carver A Happy 90th Birthday

'The Kindest Man,' He Says He Still Wears The Same Size Hat

March 17, 1991|By Jodi Bizar | Jodi Bizar,Contributing writer

Making ducks earned him recognition in folk art circles, but his waywith people has made R. Madison Mitchell a celebrity in his home town of Havre de Grace.

Friends of the renowned decoy artist describehim as a man with an uncanny ability to put people at ease and make them forget their problems.

"To know Mr. Mitchell as a person is much better than to merely appreciate his decoys," said Bill Collins, a decoy artist from Churchville.

"That's true," said his son, R. Madison Mitchell Jr., 57. "He's special. People just adore him."

Mitchell laughed when asked how he managed to be so popular.

"I made up my mind a long time agonever to get mad at anybody," he said. "It doesn't do any good, and they never forget it. I've been in business 67 years, and I haven't made any enemies."

Mitchell turned 90 March 11, and more than 200 people gathered the Saturday before at Havre de Grace Decoy Museum to celebrate.

When he walked in the museum wearing a red sweater and carrying a walking stick, everyone applauded and sang out a chorus of"Happy birthday, we love you."

He stood in the middle of the roomsmiling. Most of the wall behind him was filled with his work -- wooden ducks and geese of various sorts. On the wall to the left was a display of him made out of wax.

Patiently, he shook the hands of dozens of well-wishers and accepted gifts, such as a quilt with copies of his work stitched on it. He also received a post card from President Bush and a jewelry box from Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"I'm having a wonderful time," Mitchell said. "I've got a card from the president, a box from the governor and a citation from the mayor. I just don't know why I'm such a celebrity. I've signed my name more timesthan any president. But I still wear the same size hat."

Others at the party found it easy to explain Mitchell's popularity and celebrity status.

In addition to being a mentor and innovative force in the world of decoy art, Mitchell is also "the kindest, gentlest man Ihave ever known," said Collins. "Everyone likes him."

Collins metMitchell 20 years ago when he was hired as an apprentice at MitchellFuneral Home. Mitchell was the director of the home from 1924 to 1981.

"Then two weeks after I started," Collins said. "Mr. Mitchell said, 'There's something I didn't tell you. We don't work on funerals here. We make ducks.' "

Mitchell said he started making decoys as a hobby to keep busy when business was slow. His painted ducks were initially used as bait to help hunters attract and kill ducks.

Mitchell wasn't the only one making decoys, but the characteristic that set his work apart was his ability to master all the aspects of decoy making, from carving the wood to painting it.

"He could do it all,and do it well," explained Collins. "He had the ability to see a pattern in his head and put it in paint."

When his work gained recognition as an art form rather than a hunter's tool, he started teachinghis skills and techniques to other area residents. In fact, he is credited with teaching some 40 artists to make decoys.

"This boy andthat boy came along, and they needed some extra money," said Mitchell. "So I taught them."

"He's the grandfather of decoys," Mitchell Jr. said, pointing around the room. "He taught everyone in this room."

Collins agreed, adding, "Now, there are some artists who have actually become better than Mr. Mitchell."

Mitchell's cousin startedhim in the decoy business, selling the ducks for $1.50 or $2.75. Now, however, his work is considered far more valuable. One set of twin ducks, donated to the museum, was appraised at $10,000.

Mitchell said he doesn't regret not being able to sell his work for a higher price.

"No, I don't regret it," he said. "Times change. Things that used to cost nothing cost a lot of money now."

Mitchell's work is known nationwide and throughout the world.

"I never wanted to be famous," Mitchell said. "I just wanted to be a funeral director -- andwork with wood."

Mitchell opened his funeral home after working for his uncle in Baltimore. He sold part of his business to one of hisapprentices, Bill Smith, but still works part time at the Mitchell-Smith Funeral Home.

"I work every day they have a funeral," he said, adding that he still lives on Washington Street near the business. "I'm legally blind, so I can't write letters and help out in that respect."

Mitchell said he wanted to become a funeral director because he felt he could help families in mourning.

"I didn't think you could make a living selling decoys," he added.

Mitchell, who is a lifelong resident of Havre de Grace, married another lifelong resident, Helen Maslin. They had two children, Madelyn and R. Madison Mitchell Jr., known as "Brother." His wife died in 1973, and he has five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

His son and daughter areboth licensed funeral directors, but only Madelyn Shank followed herfather into the funeral business.

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