John Henry Mitchell Fought to Calm Traffic in Intersection Where He Died

By PAUL KILDUFF Special to the Planet
Friday April 11, 2003

ohn Henry Mitchell, always concerned about the well-being of others, wrote several letters to the city pleading for a stop sign at the busy Shattuck Avenue corner near his home, the very intersection where he was killed by a car in January.  

Walking home from his senior yoga class on Jan. 17, the 78-year-old retired teacher was crossing Shattuck at Woolsey Street — a stretch of Berkeley’s main thoroughfare where there isn’t a stop light or sign between Ashby and Alcatraz — when he was struck. 

A city report on whether to install a stop sign in the area is promised for next week. 

Witnesses told Berkeley Police that the driver, Jennifer Troia, of Oakland, appeared preoccupied when she struck Mitchell, according to the accident report. 

According to Mitchell’s wife of 30 years, Siglinde, Mitchell had been writing to Berkeley officials since 1998 about putting in a stop sign at that exact intersection — not far from their home near the corner of Telegraph and Woolsey.  

Mitchell’s first letter led to a city study that concluded there was not enough pedestrian or vehicular traffic at the intersection to warrant a stop light. He asked for a pedestrian-operated sign, known as a Santa Rosa light. 

“He didn’t even ask for a signal,” said Siglinde. 

Not one to give up easily, Mitchell responded to the report — based on data gathered during the summer when Berkeley’s student population is depleted — to conduct another study when U.C. Berkeley was in session. The city did just that in the fall of 1998 and came to the same conclusion, not enough pedestrian traffic. 

According to Peter Hillier, Berkeley’s assistant city manager for transportation, the last studies done on accidents at the intersection where Mitchell was killed showed that for a five-year period ending in 2001 there were no other fatalities. Four collisions, however, involved either a bicyclist or pedestrian.  

The same number of crashes and no deaths occurred at nearby Prince and Shattuck during the same period. Hillier would not say what the report’s recommendation would be, but he did say that “with that kind of collision frequency, there are some improvements that we should be making.”  

Berkeley Transportation Commission member Dean Metzger isn’t sure there’s the wherewithal to put in new stop signs in Berkeley. 

According to Metzger, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is the perception that stop signs cause more pollution as a result of a car’s engine having to work harder coming to a complete stop and then starting again.  

An advocate for more stop signs, Metzger  






is equally critical of the resources devoted by the Berkeley police to crack down on speeders and distracted drivers. 

Mitchell’s tenacity about the stop sign was no surprise to his son Derek, 40, of San Anselmo.  

“What he had been involved with in his later years is more than most people are involved with in their whole lives,” says Derek. “Like he said one time, there’s too many arm chair liberals out there these days.” 

In their father’s honor, Derek and his other son Ian, of Santa Cruz, and daughters Hilary, a Berkeley school teacher and Sonia, a junior at Berkeley High, along with Siglinde, carried a banner Mitchell had intended to carry in the peace rally held in San Francisco the day after he was killed. A reproduction of a cartoon, it showed Uncle Sam telling his psychiatrist, “I’m not paranoid doc, it’s just that everyone’s out to get me so I have to get them first.” 

Mitchell grew up in Oklahoma during the dust bowl. The image of tenant farmers eking out a living left a lasting impression of the importance of social justice on him, family members said. His father, a prominent pharmacist, wanted him to become a veterinarian, but he had other plans and after dropping out of vet school in Oklahoma headed to Chicago in the late 1930s.  

There he lived in a co-op with future BART Director Roy Nakadegawa, and attended Roosevelt University where he earned a degree in special education. It was during this period that Mitchell also learned folk music and eventually went on to play with Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and Country Joe and the Fish among others.  

In the early 1950s, Mitchell moved to Berkeley and began a 36-year-career as a junior high school special education teacher in east Oakland.  

“His thing was if you want to be a good human being go out and do things that really affect other people’s lives. Like special education. He touched a lot of children and had an impact on their lives. He didn’t think that would’ve happened if he was in business,” said Derek. 

Throughout his teaching career, Mitchell continued to perform at the Berkeley Folk Festival and the Fillmore West in San Francisco. He was also a fixture at Ashkenaz where he called square dances. He loved to hike Bay Area trails as a member of the Montclair Hiking Club. 

After his retirement in the early 1990s, Mitchell became president of the California Retired Teacher’s Association. A member of the ACLU and Amnesty International, Mitchell wrote countless letters for organizations to free political prisoners. 

Even Mitchell’s work on improving traffic conditions for Berkeley pedestrians was an ongoing commitment — in the 1970s he successfully lobbied the city to put in a four-way stop sign near his then-home at the corner of Prince and Wheeler after several accidents occurred there. 

Siglinde has not given up her husband’s last fight. She and several other concerned neighbors went to a Berkeley city transportation committee meeting in February to again ask for a stop sign at the intersection of Shattuck and Woolsey.  

“They said they were going to give us a traffic report in an about a month,” said Siglinde. “Well, it’s been almost three months and we still haven’t seen the traffic report.”