Graeme Mitchell, chemistry teacher and ‘walking encyclopaedia’

Graeme Mitchell obit
Graeme Mitchell obit
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Graeme Mitchell, teacher. Born: 21 May 1963, in Paisley. Died: 4 February 2017, in Bathgate, West Lothian, aged 53.

If Graeme Mitchell’s knees had been a bit more resilient he would have passed the medical to join the military, and hundreds, if not thousands, of school pupils would have missed out on the opportunity to be taught by this real-life Mr Chips – a kind and dedicated teacher at one of the country’s best schools who also happened to be the sort of person you’d want on your quiz team.

Mitchell was born in Paisley in 1963 to Douglas and Sheila Mitchell, a civil engineer and pharmacist. Douglas’s work took the family to Aidrie six years later, and Graeme attended the local primary school. Following in his father’s footsteps, he went on to Kelvinside Academy in Glasgow for his secondary schooling.

His father describes him as having been a very kind, caring, quiet and conscientious boy who read a lot and loved daydreaming and listening to music. He also played rugby at school – something he would continue at university, as well as enjoying athletics and being a member of the Boys’ Brigade.

His uncle, Dr Robin McKean, was a historian, and his academic specialism inspired Graeme to develop a deep interest in the subject, as well as a desire to understand events and ideas in context. But he ended up taking a different direction, studying for a BSc in chemistry at the University of St Andrews.

His friends from university days remember him as a gregarious, energetic young man who balanced enthusiasm for his studies with wider interests, which included sports, the officer training corps and a rich social life.

He loved challenging himself in the Great Outdoors, walking some of the West Highland Way, and developing his detailed knowledge of music, as well as a range of other subjects.

And while he had a mischievous sense of humour he treated everybody equally and with respect, and had a solid sense of social justice and a respect for established institutions and authority. This blend of virtues provided him with obvious, instinctive leadership qualities.

As his university friend Paul Allen, who was best man at his wedding, said: “Although he showed no real interest in student politics or committees, he was recognised by virtue of his personality as one of the senior figures in the hall – someone with natural authority.”

Other university friends describe Mitchell as a great conversationalist – somebody who would talk and genuinely listen, and who never dominated or hid in company. As one put it: “He could find some common interest and strike up a conversation with anyone. But he was also the responsible adult in the room when needed. If you had a question or problem, you went to him first. He always had your back. You always knew he valued your friendship.”

Mitchell had hoped to join the army after university, but failed the medical because of damage to his knees – quite possibly sustained during rugby. He then spent a brief period as a management accountant for the NHS, but didn’t particularly enjoy it, and decided to become a teacher.

He did his training at Jordanhill, then spent a couple of years teaching at Lochgelly High School while living in Glenrothes, before joining Stewart’s Melville College in 1991 as teacher of chemistry, and it was here that he really flourished, his integrity and instincts for helping people in all areas of their lives finding a grateful and welcoming home.

And it wasn’t just in the classroom where he demonstrated his commitment to the pupils and his colleagues.

For a time he was a head of department, sixth-form tutor, coached rugby and athletics, played a key part in Carbisdale outdoor education projects and was a leader of Operation Friendship, which brought disparate cultures together across the globe on summer holiday trips and visits.

Mitchell also put his interest in the military to good use, excelling as leader of the school’s Combined Cadet Force (CCF) army and later RAF sections, and was referred to with affection by many of his pupils as “Squadron Leader Mitchell”.

One of his greatest achievements, as well as growing the CCF’s membership from small figures up to more than 100, was developing links between the school’s RAF section with 1271 Bathgate Squadron ATC to enable the sharing of resources, skills and opportunities.

Through this initiative, cadets from both Bathgate and the school’s CCF formed lasting friendships, the two groups joining up for a camp near Bury St Edmunds.

David Gray, head teacher at Stewart’s Melville, described Mitchell as “a walking encyclopaedia” and “a Mr Chips figure – a truly dedicated school master”.

He told The Scotsman: “He never took credit where it was due. He was modest and unassuming. He wanted to see people fly and he stood as a silent witness to their success. He was everything you’d want in a schoolteacher. He had an excellent relationship with young people.”

He said he had received hundreds of letters of condolence from former pupils who had expressed gratitude for everything Mitchell did for them, either as RAF cadets or chemistry pupils.

Graeme Mitchell died at home in Bathgate, and is survived by his wife, Julie, who works in the school’s chemistry department, by his parents and by his brother, Gordon.

ASHLEY DAVIES