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$20 million gift from Abe Mitchell to fund new performing arts center at University of South Alabama
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$20 million gift from Abe Mitchell to fund new performing arts center at University of South Alabama

A $20 million gift from longtime supporter Abe Mitchell will fund a new performing arts center at the University of South Alabama, the university community learned on Friday as the school kicked off its 60th anniversary celebrations.

Mitchell, a member of a family that has contributed massively to South’s growth over the years, said he sees a new performing arts center as “another way to connect the university with the community.”

The latest gift adds to a considerable family legacy, said USA President Jo Bonner.

“As everyone here likely knows there is no family anywhere in the state of Alabama that has done more for public education or for a college or university than the Mitchell family,” said Bonner. “Abe, along with his late brother and best friend Mayer, and his sister-in-law and dear friend Arlene, who is our board chair, care passionately about this university. They have helped make this university the economic engine that it is for our region and they have been instrumental in taking our university to the next level.”

Bonner said the Mitchells were “donors of one of the most generous scholarship programs anywhere.” Their name is prominent on USA facilities, he noted, including “a comprehensive cancer center, the Mitchell College of Business, and of course, our beautiful Hancock-Whitney Stadium,” with its Abraham A. Mitchell Field. There’s also the Mitchell Center, the campus arena.

The Mitchell brothers founded a real estate development business, the Mitchell Company in the 1950s, followed by an investment and philanthropy company. But Abe Mitchell said Friday that a brief stint as interim Mobile County district attorney in the mid-’90s has driven his philanthropic sensibilities.

“When I was interim district attorney in Mobile, I saw firsthand how important an education is in shaping young people’s future and setting them on a path to success,” he said. “I witnessed the hopelessness of those that dropped out of school and found themselves in trouble with the law. This experience taught me that an educated person rarely comes in contact with the criminal justice system. That experience, among many others inspired me for a long time to make a positive difference in the lives of others.”

At the ceremony, speakers including Bonner, Arlene Mitchell, Provost and Executive Vice President Andi Kent and state Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, the House Speaker Pro Tem, spoke about how far USA has come since the state Legislature approved its founding early in May 1963.

Bonner said the administration building that holds his offices was the school’s first building, and in its earliest days was a “one stop shop” for administration, education and other functions.

Pringle, who Bonner described as “truly one of our biggest cheerleaders and best advocates,” got laughs when he informed the crowd that the first state appropriation for USA was $1.21 million, and that was for two years. Nowadays it’s on the order of $150 million, he said, and USA has a budget of $1.3 billion.

Kent said USA had gone from humble beginnings to offer “more than 125 degree programs, world class research and experiences you cannot find elsewhere.”

“We’ve come a long way since May 3, 1963,” she said. “Together we will keep that momentum going to make this place a special place to learn and work.”

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