Rho Mitchell recalled as ‘sparkplug’ for community

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 6 February 2015 at 12:00 am

Provided photos – Rho Mitchell is pictured with Lorraine Oakley and the giant Candy Canes he made from drainage pipe and red ribbons. Mitchell placed them along Route 31 as a holiday decorations.

ALBION – As kids growing up in Albion, David and Patty Mitchell remember helping their father wrap red ribbon on white drainage pipes. Rho Mitchell was making giant Candy Canes as holiday decorations along Route 31.

It was one of the many ways he tried to promote community pride. His children, including another son Michael Mitchell, all played in the Clown Band and the Bum Band. Their father was the ringleader. Patty played the clarinet, David the trombone, and Michael the trumpet.

“We just had fun and staggered around the street during parades,” David said.

Rho Mitchell, co-founder of a funeral home in Albion in 1957, died on Feb. 1 at age 86. He is being remembered as a devoted community member, involved in many causes.

Rho Mitchell, left, leads the brass percussion section of the Lions Club Clown Band in May 1982. Other members pictured include, from left: Howard Cotton, drummer; Mark Brailey, trombone; Frank Mack, saxophone; Tom Fitzak, trumpet; Mike Coville, bass; Jeff Long, trumpet; and John Long, trumpet.

“He was a real sparkplug,” said John Keding, a long-time leader in the Albion Lions Club. “He did a lot of work, there’s no question about it. He came up with a lot of ideas and he worked on it. He didn’t just leave the work to other people.”

Keding and Mitchell were longtime friends and members of the Lions Club. Keding was impressed with Mitchell’s creativity and commitment, especially the Candy Canes that lined the Route 31 corridor. Most of the community decorations were focused in the downtown. Mitchell wanted 31 to be jazzed up for the holidays.

Mitchell was a medic in the Navy during the Korean War. Afterhis military service, he was active in the American Legion, twice serving as commander.

Rho Mitchell plays Taps at a Memorial Day service on West Park Street with the VFW and American Legion.

He served as funeral director at many of the services for veterans. He brought along his trumpet and played “Taps” at numerous funerals and also on Memorial Day.

Rho loved music, his children said, and he wanted to promote it as much as possible in the community. Besides the Clown and Bum bands, he recruited members for the Legion Band. When some of the members became older senior citizens and struggled to march and play on a parade route, Mitchell secured a school bus for the band. He and others took the top off the bus so the band could be seen in parades.

“He was a real go-getter,” Keding said. “He made things go.”

Mitchell grew up in Elmira. He married his high school sweetheart, Beverly. She was a year behind him in school. They had a study hall together in high school.

“We sat across from each other and he completely ignored me,” his wife said. “I was surprised when he asked me out for Valentine’s day.”

They attended a dance together and Rho, “Buck” as his wife calls him, impressed her by dancing the Jitterbug.

“He was a good dancer,” said Mrs. Mitchell, his wife of 64 years. “I had two left feet.”

Mitchell initially eyed a career in the printing business as a linotypist. But he was allergic to the lead used in printing. He had a friend whose father was in the funeral business. He suggested Rho pursue it as a career.

After serving in the Korean War as a medic, he graduated from Simmons Institute of Funeral Service in Syracuse. He moved to Albion in 1955, and started his funeral director career at the former Leon Grinnell Funeral Home. At the time Albion had four funeral homes.

“He wanted to help people,” David said. “Being a funeral director came natural for him.”

Rho Mitchell and Ken Scharett started Scharett-Mitchell Funeral Home in Albion in 1957. Here is how the property looked in 1958. Mitchell, a skilled woodworker, made the sign.

Mitchell had hoped to buy the Grinnell business in 1957. Grinnell sold it to another funeral director that year. Mitchell enjoyed the Albion community and didn’t want to leave.

Rho and a friend, a fellow funeral director Ken Scharett, started Scharett Mitchell Funeral Home in Albion in late 1957 at the Christopher Mitchell Funeral Homes site on Route 31. The site has been expanded twice since then.

Scharett retired in 1974. Mitchell joined with Michael Christopher and the two opened a new funeral home in Holley in 1971 on Route 31. Christopher would retire from the business in 1982.

Rho’s son David joined Christopher Mitchell in 1984 and David’s son Josh became a funeral director, joining the family business in 2012.

Rho Mitchell is pictured in 2012 with his son David and grandson Josh. All three made their careers as funeral directors. Bruce Landis took this photo that hangs inside Christopher Mitchell Funeral Homes.

David said his father welcomed input from his son and staff.

“I was very blessed with dad from a business end,” David said. “He wanted to know what ideas I had to improve the business. He wasn’t stuck in his ways.”

His father was skilled as a woodworker and made wagons, model ships, petal cars and dump trucks as toys for his grandchildren. Those toys have endured for decades and David and Josh say they will be treasured by the family for generations to come.

Rho and his wife moved to Florida for the winters in 1991. Rho was seriously injured in a car accident in 1997 in Florida. He had to relearn to walk and talk after suffering a brain inury, as well as a broken neck and other bones.

He was at The Villages of Orleans Health and Rehabilitation Center in Albion the past four years.

“They took wonderful care of him,” David said. “We can’t say enough about the staff.”
Patty, a vocational painting and wall papering instructor at the Orleans Correctional Facility, said her father left a powerful legacy in the community.

“It was all about working together and making it a better place,” she said.