I just got word that my good friend Justin Mitchell is dead. A lot of people in Arkansas politics knew Justin. He held several positions with the Democratic party throughout the years. His death leaves a lot of us shaking our heads as it cuts short a life that contained much promise.
I met Justin when we were at Arkansas Tech. I was a paid poll worker for the Pope County election Commission. I got the job because I was volunteered for the Pope County Republican Committee and knew the Chairman, Ina Martin, well. Likewise, Justin was a worker with the Democratic Central Committee and a good friend of their chairman, Dale Brown.
The job wasn’t glamorous. We moved and set up tables and voting boxes for elections. After that first election, we sat on the curb outside the courthouse and dipped Skoal as we waited on the returns to be tabulated. We joked and laughed, these two young activists on opposite sides of the fence, so much alike and so dissimilar.
We both loved Sinatra and good Scotch. I can’t remember who won the election. When we left, he gave me a crooked smile and stuck his hand out. I stuck mine out and we shook hands. As soon as I grabbed his hand, he started rubbing his pinky nub in the palm of my hand and gave me an ornery grin with Skoal all in his teeth.
Justin ended up in my fraternity and we became good friends. He had some inherited money and bought a cabin cruiser to drive around Lake Dardanelle. One Fourth of July, we took the boat out to watch the fireworks over the lake. We may or may not have been drinking beer. But in any event, Justin ran the boat aground on a sand bar in the river channel.
It was dark, and other boats were whizzing by. But Justin wouldn’t ask for help. Instead, he climbed down the side of the boat and onto the submerged sand bar and pushed us off. I was having a fit, scared to death he would get sucked up in quicksand but he just hopped over the side and pushed us off.
Justin and I had the same political argument a million times. We knew we wouldn’t change each other’s minds, I guess we did it just because we could. We’d sit on his boat, dipping, listening to Sinatra and arguing. Sometimes we’d talk about literature, girls or cars, but mostly we’d argue politics.
Of course, as happens when you get older, you don’t have as much interaction with your college buddies. Justin and I would always make it a point to get together for lunch every few months. Last summer Justin and I had lunch at Larry’s Pizza. We sat and talked politics for longer than our lunch hour.
Justin was excited about Barack Obama. His boss, Pat O’Brien, the Pulaski County Clerk, had stepped out for Obama when everyone else in Arkansas was backing Hillary. I knew Mr. O’Brien had political ambitions and I thought he was a smart fellow for having my friend Justin as an employee. Justin wasn’t a policy wonk but he had a good sense of what the public would buy. He was a staunch Democrat and pretty danged liberal, but he wasn’t afraid to admit when the Democrats were wrong.
The last time I saw Justin was at our friend Jazz Johnston’s wedding. Justin and I talked politics and it irritated about everyone that was around us. We promised to get together for lunch soon but we never did. I have no excuse to why I didn’t.
Justin was a man that was full of life…and at times vinegar…and he rarely would let me get in the last word. For once I have the last word and it doesn’t feel good. I’d rather have my friend.