Early in his career, veteran photojournalist Odell Mitchell, Jr. learned to value mentorship, appreciative for what he gained being nurtured and later, for the satisfaction of doing the nurturing.
Now he is officially a “Living Legend.” He was among three media icons recently recognized for their outstanding careers with The Living Legends Award by the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists. Producer Ruth Ezell and food columnist Cleora Hughes joined Mitchell, a retired photographer who spent 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, at a celebration last month.
“We are excited to highlight the work of these three journalism champions who have made their respective marks on the profession and set the stage for many of us to follow,’’ said Carol Daniel of O’Fallon, GSLABJ president. “They represent more than 100 years of dedicated service to our community and to the organization.”
The black journalists group work mentoring young aspiring journalists and keeping people interested in journalism, he said.
During Mitchell’s illustrious career, he covered every beat from news and sports to fashion and food. He freelanced for local, national and international clients, too, traveling all over the U.S. and several foreign countries on assignment.
In 2007, Odell decided to focus his energy on his freelance photography business, www.odellmitchelljrphotography.com, and took an early buyout being offered by the parent company, Lee Enterprises. The next year, he began teaching as an adjunct professor.
“It’s a different ballgame,” he said. “I get really excited to teach students about photography. I want them to know there is more than just taking selfies.”
He currently teaches photography at two colleges, Blackburn in Carlinville, Illinois, and St. Louis Community College — one class at Meramec this fall and another at Forest Park in the spring.
Mitchell, who grew up in East St. Louis, has lived with his wife, Linda, in O’Fallon since their two childrens’ school days.
His son, Odell Mitchell III, known as “Mickey,” is currently a lawyer in Chicago and his daughter, Aviva Jaye, is an aspiring musician living in New York City. She works with the Brooklyn Children’s Choir and is in a band, Echo Bloom.
His wife, a writer, is currently a consultant on literacy.
“She’s really big on reading,” he said.
Never one to call attention to himself, Mitchell said he learned during his college years not to put yourself in the story. But get him focused on work, and he is passionate about his chosen profession.
“We document history,” he said.
Furthermore, an older brother brought a camera home from Vietnam and Odell has been snapping photos ever since he was 17.
“I was hooked,” he said. “I borrowed it and would take the camera to school and take snapshots. I took black and white photos and had them developed at the drugstore.”
His mom would eventually buy him a camera at the old Grants store.
After having his senior pictures taken at Ringhofer Photography, Mitchell thought about becoming a portrait photographer, but he became interested in a media career after recruiters came to his high school. He graduated in 1973 from East St. Louis Senior High School, where he also played football. He was a center on the varsity team.
He was one of five children, with two older brothers, an older sister and a younger sister. Mitchell’s dad died his senior year in high school, and his mother worked as a specialist at Grand Marais State Park, introducing kids to nature programs. After being laid off during the Dan Walker years, she became a cook at a day care center before dying of cancer in 1990. Mitchell went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications from Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.
From sophomore year to senior year, he was thrilled to get paid working at the daily school newspaper.
“I learned a lot. I learned how to tell a story as a photographer. I learned how to collect information for cutlines. It was trial and error, preparing us for jobs,” he said.
He began his professional career as a staff photographer at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.
As for teaching, his goal is to teach practical skills so students can use them in life.
Mitchell recalled the greatest moments of his life were covering Nelson Mandela’s election in South Africa and Jackie Joyner-Kersee at the Olympic Trials in track and field in Indianapolis in 1988.
“I knew the paper wasn’t going to pay for me to go to Barcelona, so I went to cover Jackie and her family at the trials in Indianapolis. That was when Flo Jo was running, and her brother was there,” he said. “Jackie Joyner-Kersee is a very sincere person. It was great to be there with her.”
As for his awards recognition, he said: “It was very humbling. I did photography because I loved it. I learned from good people who taught me so much. I really want to be there for others to learn from. I still enjoy it. I still keep an interest in journalism.”
Being recognized with Ruth Ezell and Cleora Hughes was also special, he said.
“It was an honor.”
Meet Odell Mitchell, Jr.
Q: Do you have words to live by?
A: “Thank God everyday for my life. Never give up.”
Q: Whom do you most admire?
A: ”My wife and children.”
Q: If you could spend time with a famous person, past or present, whom would it be?
A: ”George Washington Carver.”
Q: What is the last book you read?
A: ”Jackie Joyner-Kersee autobiography (“A Kind of Grace”)“
Q: What do you do for fun and relaxation?
A: ”Listen to music, watch television.”
Q: What is the usual state of your desktop?
A: “Class work for students and scanning old photos.”
Q: What did you want to do career-wise when you were growing up?
A: ”Scientist, pro football player, then I turned to a photographer my senior in high school.”
Q: What do you think is your most outstanding characteristic?
A: ”I’m pretty straight forward.”
Q: What irritates you most?
A: “People being victims.”
Q: What type of music do you listen to?
A: ”Jazz, gospel and R&B. Oh, for sure my daughter Aviva Jaye’s music.”
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: ”Now since I teach, I always say it is so much more fun being on the other side of grading.”
Q: If you were independently wealthy, what would you be doing?
A: ”Travel and give to family and others.”