SHU Honors Bill Mitchell at Discovery Dinner

FAIRFIELD — Sacred Heart University paid tribute to a man who President John J. Petillo praised as an example of what it means “to pay it forward and not look for anything in return,” a man whose generosity and vision are the cornerstones of a new collegiate recovery program for the school.

Bill Mitchell was honored Friday at Sacred Heart’s 29th annual Discovery Gala for his efforts in advocating recovery-related causes. A member of the Board of Trustees since 2002 and Vice Chairman of Mitchell Family Stores, he received Sacred Heart’s Discovery Award.

The university has raised more than $1.1 million from the event, which included a significant gift from Mitchell for the creation of a recovery program at SHU. The school will either build or buy a place to turn into a sober house, where students facing addiction can get help, Dr. Petillo said.

In accepting the award, Mitchell said, “My name is Bill Mitchell, and I am an alcoholic … and I have been introducing myself that way for over 28 years.”

He thanked Dr. Petillo for his commitment to developing a recovery program, and he thanked his wife, Sue, and his family for their intervention when his drinking was at its worst, which led him to enter rehab at 47.

“Recovery saved my life, and it gave me a life,” he said, adding that alcoholism is a family disease and that three generations of the Mitchell family are in recovery.

During his sobriety, Mitchell has helped countless individuals and has been a friend and mentor to several Sacred Heart students striving to live clean and sober. Two of them, James Cafran and Tim Holt, were at the gala and joined Dr. Petillo in giving the Discovery Award to Mitchell.

“These young men would not be here tonight without you,” Petillo said as Mitchell joined them on the stage.

Holt, in a video, said his life was troubled by drugs and that his addiction had destroyed his relationship with his family and friends. He had ended up living in a barn. During the day, he would play golf and use the country club facilities by pretending to be someone else. Since starting recovery, he enrolled in Sacred Heart’s graduate business program, where he is an honors student.

Cafran, a senior majoring in marketing who is also an honors student, commented on the plans for a SHU recovery program and said, “I think it’s important because it gives young people who believe they are now an outcast to society a chance to feel like they are just another student at Sacred Heart, no matter what life circumstances they were given. Everyone has challenges in life, and this is a huge way of helping students at Sacred Heart face them.”

Petillo said, “Bill is a true friend of Sacred Heart and a tireless advocate for recovery-related causes. He is the personification of who we are as a university community. He is a passionate, caring, pay-it-forward type of guy.”

Mitchell said he has a simple philosophy that has guided him throughout sobriety and in dealing with others suffering from addiction: “I give away freely what’s been given to me freely.”

A lifelong resident of Westport, he has served on the boards of St. Vincent’s Medical Center, the Jewish Home for the Elderly and the Inner City Foundation for Charity and Education. He and his wife Sue have three sons, Scott, Chris and Tyler.

Jim Nantz, a sports commentator for CBS and good friend of Mitchell, served as master of ceremonies at the gala, which was held at SHU’s West Campus. He started the evening by saying, “We are here tonight for one incredible man — the world’s most decorated socks salesman, as Bill likes to say.” This prompted a standing ovation for Mitchell from the audience of more than 350 people.

Nantz described their friendship of more than 30 years as “one of the most important friendships I’ve had in my life” and then asked the audience, “Have you ever met a more giving human being in your life than Bill?”

The evening included a performance by the Midtown Men, who are the four original cast members of the Broadway hit “The Jersey Boys.”

William Reidy, Vice President for University Advancement, who organized the event, expressed his gratitude to Nantz and the Midtown Men for performing free of charge and said the event was one of the most successful the university has had and that he expects donations to continue.

James Morley Jr., a member of the Sacred Heart board, said, “This is typical of what we are at Sacred Heart. We are interested in the total student and their experience as human beings. This has been a personal mission of Bill Mitchell’s, and we are committed to carrying it forward as an institution.”

Mitchell tells the story of the time Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair came into Richard’s of Greenwich with his wife Cherie. He told Mitchell his dream had been to bring together the three faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Cherie suggested he seek the counsel of Mother Teresa, so he flew to Calcutta to meet with her.

She took him through the streets of the impoverished city, where he saw deprivation, poverty, sickness and despair, and he watched Mother Teresa care for the poorest of the poor with love and compassion.

When they returned to her convent, he said, “Mother, I still don’t get it.” The diminutive nun raised her hands and put them on the Prime Minister’s shoulders and looking up at him, said, “Tony, I can only help the person right in front of me.” The experience changed his life … and Bill Mitchell’s.

“Mother Teresa was right,” Mitchell said. “We can only help the person right in front of us. That’s what recovery is about.”

Story by Joe Pisani