What’s in a name?
Mitchell Field’s namesake has rich musical history
LEWISTOWN — Mitchell Field could easily be Scot Sechler’s home away from home.
The Mifflin County High School football coach has visited the friendly confines countless times since he was a youngster.
“The first I can remember was 1983, watching the undefeated Mingoes,” Sechler says of taking in his first high school gridiron game with the former Chief Logan High School playing. “I was 10 years old.”
Nearly four decades later, Sechler is still at the field, coaching the Huskies from the sidelines. Every visit triggers a memory from his storied football past. Ask him to share a memory and there’s bound to be a glorious play from yesteryear involved.
Ask Sechler who Mitchell Field is named after … that’s a different story. He paused and provided an unlikely correct answer of “Palmer Mitchell” after a few minutes, possibly sending a text as a lifeline as if he were a contestant on a Hollywood game show.
Sechler then fesses up. “I didn’t,” says the coach, when asked if he really knew of Mitchell’s identity.
“I have friends. Mostly in low places,” he jokes.
A minority of folks around town might know that Mitchell Field is named in honor of beloved former Lewistown High School band director Palmer Sebastian Mitchell. Previously, the field was known as Lewistown Athletic Field, Forest Fisher, past president of the Mifflin County Historical Society, said.
Back in the day, Fisher says, “They would just go out and line a field since in that area of town everything was field.”
“Palmer Mitchell has been an unseen presence around Mifflin County and Lewistown High School for generations,” Fisher said. “Many today are indeed unaware or at least ambivalent of the field’s namesake.”
An accomplished past
Those who are aware of Mitchell might not realize he composed a march called the “Tressler Orphans’ Home March,” and was a friend of American composer and conductor John Philip Sousa — performed with the Sousa Band. Sousa was called the “March King” because of his penchant for writing and directing American military marches.
The “Tressler Orphans’ Home March” is titled after the Tressler Orphans’ Home in Loysville, Perry County, and particularly the Tressler Orphans’ Home Boys’ Band. The American Civil War created many orphaned children, which is why the home opened at the end of the war in 1865. It served thousands of children during the 97 years it was in operation and grew into a community known as “Tresslertown,” featuring its own high school and church.
“The Tressler Boys band was well-known and performed throughout Pennsylvania,” said Mark Baylor, a retired Mifflin County School District music teacher and former high school band director at both Kishacoquillas and Lewistown. “It was their quality and success that inspired Palmer Mitchell to write his march.
“I recently discovered it was rearranged from a partial score and performed by the U.S. Marine Band,” Baylor added.
The Tressler Boys’ Band was discontinued in 1947 because the students were now in public schools with bands. Acknowledging the changing face of children’s services, the orphanage closed in 1962.
The Orphans’ March was revived by Tressler Lutheran Services, which operated the orphans’ home, for its 125th anniversary in 1994.
Discovering an unexpected treasure
Baylor sometimes shares music-related posts on the Mifflin County Historical Society and Music Boosters’ Facebook pages. After receiving a photograph of a young Mitchell, “I decided to dig into his history a bit, so I could have more to post than his name is on the stadium,” Baylor said.
Baylor was pleasantly surprised by how much information he discovered.
“The recording of the march itself was an unexpected treasure,” he said. “I enjoyed the very professional narration that leads into the recording.”
Dedicated to his work
Mitchell died at age 62 in his sleep from an apparent heart attack at his Beaver Springs home. His wife discovered him when she went to his room to get him for breakfast. Mitchell, afflicted with a nervous condition for several years according to the obituary which appeared in The (Sunbury) Daily Item on Oct. 30, 1948, had performed his duties as music teacher in the Lewistown schools while in a wheelchair.
Both his legs were partially paralyzed, according to the newspaper account.
“The late (high school band director) Michael Wasilko relayed the story to me that Palmer Mitchell suffered from paralysis of his legs, confirmed in the obituary,” Baylor said. “Wasilko told me that Palmer continued to teach marching band right up to his passing and his son, Eugene, would push his wheelchair up and down the field as he gave the students instructions.”
When Palmer fell ill, the entire Lewistown Marching Band went to his house to perform his march for him. The band was also given a day off from school to perform at his funeral.
Mitchell founded and directed the VFW Post 1667 Band of Lewistown at the Lewistown Steamrollers-Altoona Legionnaires semi-pro football game, and it is believed the exertion might have been too much of a strain on his heart, the paper stated.
Founding father of music
Mitchell organized the famed Central Pennsylvania Ladies Band, Beaver Springs and the VFW Band. He also served as orchestra and choir director in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Beaver Springs, and was an active member of the Pennsylvania Music Education Association. He was a past president of the Pennsylvania Band Association, and a former member of the executive board of the unit. He also was involved with the Biglerville Band and Alfarata Band.
Mitchell could play every musical instrument, and began his band work at age 8 with the Beaver Springs Community Band.
A locally well-known painting of Mitchell, painted by Fisher’s late mother, Anne Kepler Fisher, was displayed in the Lewistown High School band room until it was moved to the historic Mifflin County Courthouse. Kepler Fisher was a colorist, photographer and artist with her father and uncle’s Lewistown business, The Kepler Studio, which was located on Market and later Dorcas streets from 1923 through 1984, according to her son.
The portrait is signed “Kepler” as a product of the studio. It hangs in the second-floor hallway of the courthouse just outside the rear entrance to the courtroom.
“I believe 1941 was established as the correct date of the field’s name, rather than the 1938 listed on signage under the painting,” Fisher said.
Mitchell’s son Eugene was chosen to carry on the tradition established by his late father as he succeeded him as band director at Lewistown, according to a Jan. 15, 1949, clipping from The Daily Item.
Eugene had an impressive musical career when he was named as the successor. Eugene graduated from Susquehanna University in music. He played French horn at Lewistown when his father served as band director.