In an ongoing series, the Kilgore News Herald is telling the stories of the people behind the dedications of local buildings, attractions and monuments, aiming to reacquaint readers with the men and women – some living, most gone – who lent their names and legacies to Kilgore’s foundation.
“They were everybody’s friend,” India Rader Mitchell Stroope said of her husband and son.
Vernon Mitchell, a Kilgore High School standout in multiple sports, and son Mark were killed in a car wreck in 1976, but their names are part of the very framework of Kilgore sports in the Mitchell Field House at KHS.
A 1955 graduate of Kilgore High School, Vernon Arthur Mitchell was a tri-captain of the 1954 Kilgore Bulldogs team alongside Larry Hickman and Buddy Humphrey. Vernon was also an accomplished athlete in basketball and track.
Mitchell went on to play college football at Texas Western University (now the University of Texas at El Paso), and Hickman and Humphrey both had college and professional careers after high school.
Twenty years later, Mitchell’s sons J. Mitchell and Mark Rader Mitchell were playing football themselves at the high school and junior high levels, respectively.
On Sept. 24, 1976, the Mitchells had gone to Center to watch J. play. On the way back to Kilgore after the game, a car veered across the center stripe of Hwy. 149 and hit the Mitchells’ car on the driver’s side in a wreck that ultimately involved four vehicles. Vernon and Mark Mitchell were killed in the collision that left six others injured, including Vernon’s wife, India and their daughter, Missy.
Some of the buses carrying students back to Kilgore from the game had already passed the site of the wreck near Tatum before it occurred, but the football team’s bus came upon the crash shortly after, according to an account of the wreck.
“When the team bus got close and stopped because of the backed-up traffic, some of the school officials walked up to the accident scene while the team remained on the bus,” a Sept. 26, 1976, Kilgore News Herald article reported.
After finding out the Mitchells were involved, then-KHS Principal Thomas George took J. off the bus and told him what had happened. Humphrey, who was assistant principal at the time, stayed by the Mitchells’ car until ambulances arrived, the article continues.
“It affected everyone,” J. said about the event, which many people who lived in Kilgore at the time remember.
The field house, which was not completed until the spring of 1977, was a way for the school district to honor two of its players and supporters. J. said Humphrey was instrumental in making sure the facility honored his former teammate, Mark and the Mitchell family.
“The school was building a new field house, and it wasn’t quite completed, and after the death of my dad and little brother, the Kilgore Independent School district chose to name the field house the Mitchell Field House,” J. said, noting the athletes were in the basement of the old KHS gym before the field house.
The Mitchells did not know about the honor beforehand, and the facility was officially dedicated in the spring of 1977.
“I was very humbled, and still I’m humbled. It’s been meaningful to me… The field house and Kilgore football are meaningful to me,” J. said, noting his son was a member of the 2004 state championship team that went on to play at the college level at the University of Texas.
Both Vernon and Mark were respected by their peers, he continued, pointing to the “glowing” things his dad’s classmates wrote in his 1955 yearbook.
India added her husband and son were friends to everyone and were “well loved in the community and the schools… Mark was very popular and Vernon was well respected in the town.”
With Vernon’s connection with KHS football, Mark’s young football career and J.’s involvement at the time of the wreck, India said, it was a humbling experience for the district to name the field house in honor of her family.
“We didn’t miss a game,” she said of their support of KHS football.
When it comes to J.’s favorite memory of his dad and brother, though, it does not involve a gridiron. Rather, it revolves around Lake Cherokee where they would spend time doing yard work and boating.