By Mary Lu Arpaia
My association with Gordon goes back nearly 35 years to some of the very earliest days as a new graduate student here in Davis. Sometimes the best things that happen to you are unplanned. That is how I first met Gordon. I had been accepted into graduate school in the Pomology Department but did not have the grades to be offered an assistantship; instead I was offered work study. I went to the work study office and found a job posting in the Pomology Department to work in postharvest. Now, I had planned to do something in the field, but needed a job to pay the bills. And I wanted a job in the department that I had been accepted to as a graduate student. That job was working for Gordon and that was serendipity. When I think back on that one event I know it was one of the most important events in my graduate career and subsequent adventures in life. My experiences with him during my 5 years at Davis have served as the guideposts for my career.
By the time that I was hired to work for Gordon in the Fall of 1977 he was already a respected postharvest biologist. He had gone from the ranks of Farm Advisor to statewide specialist for postharvest. He had achieved a Masters from Cornell University on the effect of controlled atmosphere on apples. His work with forced air cooling and packaging with Rene Giullou and Ed Maxie as well as others had established him to be a leader, albeit a soft spoken one, in the field of postharvest handling. He had just returned from a six month sabbatical in South Africa. He would go on to make more valuable achievements to the California fruit industries as well as worldwide. This included being a co-founder of the very successful UC Davis postharvest shortcourse in 1978 alongside with Adel Kader, Bob Kasmire, Michael Reid and Jim Thompson. His contributions to the California stone fruit industry were recognized by all and culminated by the naming of the postharvest laboratory at the UC Kearney Agricultural Center as the F. G. Mitchell Postharvest Laboratory following the generous donation of his friend LeRoy Giannini.
His dear friend Gawie Eksteen, who worked with him in South Africa during that 1976-77 sabbatical leave wrote this to me. He summarizes so well Gordon’s impact upon the world of postharvest biology:
"Gordon was talented in many ways. He was a master in explaining intricate scientific concepts in such a way that both researchers and growers clearly understood every concept. He was also a “down to earth” scientist, combining technology and practical application. He is still regarded as the father of Forced Air Cooling of fresh produce in South Africa. His contributions in handling and cooling of fresh produce made a tremendous impact on fruit quality in the local and overseas markets. These practical concepts are still most efficient and became the international standard in all fruit, vegetable and flower producing countries."
Adel Kader from the UC Davis Pomology Department (now the Department of Plant Sciences) frequently teamed with Gordon Mitchell on numerous projects including the founding of the Postharvest Technology Program and they worked together as co-editors of the “Perishables Handling Newsletter” for more than 25 years. Adel went on to say,
"Gordon worked collaboratively with colleagues from the Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department to produce the UC Davis Cooling Manual in 1972 and several updated editions during his career. He conducted excellent, mission-oriented research on optimal harvesting and handling of many fruits, including stone fruits, pears, apples, and kiwifruits, that benefited the respective industries not only in California, but throughout the world. His extension program was exemplary and he was recognized internationally as a leader in postharvest biology and technology of fruits."
Jim Thompson, from the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at UC Davis and who also collaborated with Mitchell on numerous projects, said the following,
"Gordon was a pioneer in postharvest technology and a person who worked tirelessly with the California industry to improve the market quality of our fresh fruits and tree nuts. He developed the early concepts and standards for handling California Granny Smith and Fuji apples, kiwifruit, and pistachio nuts. When the tree fruit industry had questions about postharvest issues, their first phone call was to Gordon."
Gordon was comfortable in his own skin. When I remember him I think of the word “ethical”, with high moral standards and integrity; calm, observant, forward-thinking, caring and humorous. He was always there for me as a student and later as a professional. He was an excellent mentor and immediately accepted me as a member of the “Mitchell team” alongside his long time technical support colleague, Gene Mayer. He mentored by example and allowed me to make mistakes, knowing that it is always valuable to learn from one’s mistakes. He provided me many opportunities to interact with the California fruit industries taking me along on technical visits and helping to set up cooling tests and observe him and Gene design experiments, discuss their results and how to interpret these. As I neared the end of my time as a graduate student he made sure that I gained experience in giving talks to large groups even though I may have lacked the self-confidence to do so… he always told me that everyone needs a little practice. He did not have to do these things, but he did because he saw the value in teaching by example and experience.
I know he gave this special treatment to all his graduate students. Adriana Dinamarca Rushing, a former graduate student in the mid 1980’s wrote this to me last week:
"If I can say something in a few words as a former graduate student, I was so fortunate to have Gordon as a Major Professor. He cared so much about the industry, teaching and especially all the students or anyone who will come to his office to ask a simple or more elaborated question. He was always very friendly, down to earth, honest, helpful and knowledgeable. He also was like the "father figure" to most of us foreign students. You could see the goodness in everything he did and that he was a role model professionally and personally."
The contributions that he made first as a scientist and extension specialist but more importantly as a human being are remarkable. His impact is being felt around the world by improved fruit handling practices and by the actions of those so fortunate as to have worked and learned from him.
Mary Lu Arpaia