By Kate McCarthy
If you’re looking for Leo Mitchell at 7:15 on a weekday morning, you can find him in the same place he’s been at that hour for the last six decades or so: his office at Sterling Lacquer Manufacturing Company, where he serves as President and CEO. Arrive before then, though, and he’ll still be at 6:30 a.m. Mass at nearby St. Ambrose Catholic Church. If it’s a weekend, well, just wait a little while, because he’s sure to be in at some point – just maybe not that early. On Sundays, Leo has been known to get into work as late as 11 a.m., after 7:30 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes and breakfast with friends.
Leo comes by such discipline honestly, fostered under the watchful eyes of Jesuit teachers at St. Louis University High School and Saint Louis University and bolstered by his time in the United States Navy.
When asked how his education informed his own discipline, Leo chuckled and replied, “Well, that’s very nice of you to think I’m disciplined; I don’t know about that. But the Jesuits certainly are. They don’t deviate too much from the right path, whether it’s work or prayer.”
Regardless of what he humbly says, Leo has not deviated too much from the right path, either. His life is a testament to the power of steadfast commitment to one’s faith, work, family and community.
Born to John and Hattie Mitchell in 1935, Leo Mitchell grew up with his older sister, Frances, in south St. Louis, where they both attended St. Cecilia Catholic School. He remembers his parents modeling faith, generosity and a strong work ethic. Family would continue to guide his steps into early adulthood. He applied to St. Louis University High School and Saint Louis University in part because his older cousin John Boland, whom he greatly admired, had also attended school there.
Leo recalled, “I recognized early on that the Jesuits were very good, fair teachers – and that you better do what they say.”
After two years at Saint Louis University, he joined the United States Navy, pursuing a lifelong dream of becoming a pilot through the rigorous Naval Aviation Cadet Program at NAS in Pensacola, Fla. After receiving his officer’s commission and pilot’s wings, Leo was stationed at Whidbey Island, Wash., and flew reconnaissance missions throughout the Pacific Ocean.
Back home, Leo’s mother and father tragically passed away within one year of each other. Not yet 25, he returned to St. Louis to join the family’s paint manufacturing company and complete his degree at SLU.
Working full time and carrying a full course load did not allow for endless free time, but, in 1961, Leo still managed to meet, propose to and marry the woman of his dreams, a SLU nursing student named Jeanean Parr. They went on to have four children, all of whom followed in their father’s footsteps in the paint business.
“From the time I met Jeanean — even before that, things were good — but from the time I met her, life was better than I ever thought it could be,” Leo recalled.
Jeanean was a lifelong volunteer. Her consciousness of and desire to help with the suffering of others was fundamental to who she was. Her passion for social justice inspired her husband to support and take part in her efforts. Over the course of their four decades together, the couple donated their time and treasure to refugee resettlement work, health care services in north St. Louis, Catholic education, Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, Boys Hope and other causes and organizations that work to uplift humanity.
Jeanean passed away in 2000 but left an indelible mark on her community. She was among the first women to serve on the board of trustees of St. Louis University High School and the recipient of the Archbishop John L. May Leadership Award for Distinguished Health Care Ministry. She also served on the Commission on Human Rights for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
She left an indelible mark on her husband, too.
“We just had a lot of fun together,” he said.
Even amid busy schedules, the pair made time to get away. For 10 years, they traveled to London every December right before the holidays. There, they enjoyed the glow of London at Christmastime, having dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant on Duke Street and seeing a show in the West End theater district. A cherished part of their annual trip was attending Mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, London’s only Jesuit parish.
Since his wife’s death, Leo has returned to London to honor their long-held tradition, missing only two years in the twenty since she has been gone. Each December, he dines at their favorite Italian restaurant, walks the same streets they walked in Mayfair, and, of course, attends Mass at “Farm Street Church,” as their favorite Jesuit parish is known to locals. In this way, he keeps the memory of his beloved wife close.
Leo Mitchell has spent his 85 years quietly but dutifully leveraging the power of daily habits — in faith, work, and relationships — to build a meaningful life. His commitment to prayer and worship are both the cause and effect of a resolute faith that underpins all that he does. Working diligently day in and day out, he transformed a small regional paint company to a business that spans three continents. Cherishing his wife, family and community paid dividends in the form of great love and strong relationships.
His eldest grandchild, Kevin McCarthy, added: “My grandfather has always been my North Star. I look to the example of his life to help determine the direction of my own. His daily practices of diligent work, absolute humility, and unfailing generosity have been a constant source of guidance for me.”
Leo’s support of the UCS Province, specifically St. Louis University High School and Saint Louis University, is an expression of his gratitude for what the Jesuits have given to him and a way to help others have the same meaningful experience.
When asked why philanthropy has been important to him, he spoke of his gratitude to his parents for sending him to such fine schools and to the Jesuits for the education they offered him. He believes in the good works of the Jesuits and wishes to support and advance their efforts.
“Plus,” he added, smiling, “I suppose I just got in the habit of doing it.”