Former Maryland House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell, right, died Thursday at 83.
Former Maryland House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell, right, died Thursday at 83. (BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR / Baltimore Sun)

Roy Clayton Mitchell Jr., onetime gentleman farmer and former Democratic legislator who became speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, died Thursday from complications from cancer at his Kennedyville home. He was 83.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our 104th Speaker of the House of Delegates, and my good friend, R. Clayton Mitchell Jr.,” said Gov. Larry Hogan in a statement.

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“As an Army veteran and distinguished member of the legislature, Speaker Mitchell leaves and indelible mark on our great state. His countless contributions include fighting to modernize Maryland’s transportation infrastructure, and last year I was proud to dedicate the Route 50 bridge over the Kent Narrows in Speaker Mitchell’s honor,” said Gov. Hogan.

“Speaker Mitchell was a man for whom I had tremendous respect and admiration. He dedicated his life to serving others and will always be remembered as an icon on the Eastern Shore,” he said.

Gov. Hogan ordered that the Maryland state flag be lowered to half-staff until Mr. Mitchell’s interment.

“The State of Maryland has lost one of its grand statesman, the Eastern Shore has lost a favorite son, and I’ve lost a mentor and friend,” Comptroller Peter Franchot write in a Facebook posting..

“I’ll miss the Speaker dearly, but I count myself blessed to have had him in my life and in my career for as long as I did. The same can be said of Kent County, the Eastern Shore and the entire state — all of which benefited from his two decades of leadership in the Maryland General Assembly.” Mr. Franchot wrote.

“I am saddened to hear of the passing of Speaker Clay Mitchell last night,” said current Speaker Adrienne A. Jones in a statement.

“Speaker Mitchell served with distinction during challenging economic times for the State and, as a fellow appropriator, I appreciated his reputation for being fiscally responsible and directing State dollars where they were needed most,” she said.

“Speaker Mitchell was beloved by many delegates because he always stood up for the House and members of the House in negotiations with the Senate and Governor,” Ms. Jones said.

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Roy Clayton Mitchell Jr., the son of Roy Clayton Mitchell Sr., a farmer and developer, and his wife, Mildred Rhodes Mitchell, who worked with her husband, was born at home in Kentmore Park, a housing development on the Sassafras River near Kennedyville that his father established in 1928.

He attended St. Andrews. a Delaware boarding school, and graduated from Chestertown High School in 1955, where he pitched for the baseball team and played basketball. Because his legs were so thin, he earned the moniker “Spaghetti legs,” from his teammates.

Drafted into the Army, he was soon honorably discharged for medical reasons. He then attended Goldey Beacom Junior College in Wilmington, Del., where he obtained a business degree and after graduation joined his father in the farming and real estate business.

In 1966 he was elected to the Kent County Commissioners and in 1970 won a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. He went on to be chair of the Eastern Shore delegation and headed the House Appropriations Committee.

With his genial nature, Mr. Mitchell easily gathered votes for committee chairman John R. Hargreaves, a Caroline County Democrat.

“Mr. Mitchell also acquired a reputation as someone who played as hard as he worked, joining friends for late-night drinking sessions that often stretched into the early hours of the morning,” reported The Washington Post in a 1989 profile.

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Bringing change to his life, Mr. Mitchell became an ex-smoker and teetotaler, who rose at 6 a.m. and worked out for 45 minutes on a treadmill, reported The Sun in a 1992 article.

Mr. Mitchell was named in 1987 to serve as speaker of the House of Delegates after now-Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

“During his 16-year career in the General Assembly, Mr. Mitchell earned a reputation for being unflappable and deliberative, for bringing together disparate viewpoints into consensus, and for working to advance group goals rather than his own, all the while operating as quietly and unobtrusively as a bellhop,” reported The Evening Sun in a 1986 profile.

“He is quick to smile and slow to anger,” observed the newspaper.

That’s not to say that Mr. Mitchell was timid when it came to whacking his gavel to quiet down a group of delegates who’d be chatting while a colleague attempted to speak.

“Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. often has to whack his gavel hard to quiet the group down. So hard, in fact, that he has been known to break a gavel or two,” reported The Sun.

“Last week the clerks who sit in front of him decided to take precautions against gavel shrapnel. Three donned neon-colored headgear --- quite possibly inspired by the week’s hottest item, a mandatory helmet law,” observed the newspaper.

“Clay Mitchell was the Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates when I was just getting my start as a young delegate from Montgomery County,” Mr. Franchot said. “For more than 30 years, the Speaker has been a treasured source of sound advice, reassurance and support for me. Truth be told, he could also let me know, in his own quiet but firm way, when I was off base on an issue.”

A Sun article said he was known for fiscal conservatism and an iron fist.

"I'm burned out, that's all, " he said at the time. “I want to go home and do some relaxing and be with my family. I'm 57 years old. I want to be with my grandchildren for a while, for a change. I just want to enjoy my grandchildren. The growing-up years with my kids, I missed a lot of that. I don't want to miss that with my grandchildren."

The article said that Mr. Mitchell said that his political work had taken a great toll on his family.

“I was shaving in the mirror several weeks ago, and I looked at myself and said, ‘Hey, you’ve just got to get out,’ ” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1993.

"You may not have me to pick on anymore in a few days," he told The Sun.

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After Mr. Mitchell stepped down from the post in 1994, he was succeeded by Casper Taylor.

Gov. Larry Hogan named the Kent Narrows Bridge in Mr. Mitchell’s honor last year.

“Clay Mitchell has devoted his life to public service for the State of Maryland and to serving the people of the Eastern Shore,” said Governor Hogan at its dedication.

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“During his 23 years in the legislature, Clay was a tireless advocate for modernized transportation. Like this bridge. Clay Mitchell’s incredible leadership will stand the test of time, and this dedication today will serve as a constant reminder to the people of Maryland of his countless contributions to our great state.”

Working with then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Mr. Mitchell began the “Reach the Beach” advertising campaign, whose goal was to speed those traveling to the beach over better roads and bridges.

In retirement, Mr. Mitchell spent his days running a Radio Shack store he owned near the Bay Bridge until selling it in 1996, selling real estate, and leasing farmland to farmers.

Mr. Mitchell chair of the Save our Skipjacks Task Force and the Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000. He was a member of Board of Visitors and Governors of Washington College and a director of Second National Bank of Maryland.

In 2008, the R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. Kent County Government Center in Chestertown was dedicated to Mr. Mitchell.

“Speaker Mitchell lived a full life, and we thank him for dedicating the majority of it to improving the State of Maryland,” Maryland Democratic Party Chair Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, said in a statement.

Mr. Mitchell remained a loyal fan of Chevrolets, which he had driven throughout his lifetime, and liked eating breakfasts and fried oyster lunches at Twinny’s Place in Galena, where he was a regular.

In addition to farming, Mr. Mitchell enjoyed golfing.

His wife of 59 years, the former Marie A. “Teel” Whitset, died in 2017.

A visitation for Mr. Mitchell will be held from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at Fellows, Helfenbein & Newnam Funeral Home, 370 W. Cypress Street, Millington. A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the funeral home, followed by interment in the cemetery of Shrewsbury Episcopal Church in Kennedyville.

He is survived by three sons, Clayton Anderson Mitchell Sr. of Stevensville, John C. “Chris” Mitchell of Kennedyville and Michael R. Mitchell of Dover, Del.; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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