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By Peter Vankevich
While islanders and visitors may know Gary Mitchell as the leader of Molasses Creek, the island contemporary folk band, what they may not know is that he is an industrial arts teacher.
Mitchell, while still the leader of Molasses Creek, will return to the teaching profession in August when he assumes the position—again—as the “shop” teacher for Ocracoke School.
In fact, he first came to Ocracoke in that capacity.
Thanksgiving in 1976 was his first visit here, the same year he graduated from college and he fell in love with the island.
“It was kind of a fantasy to be able in to live here,” he said.
After earning a teaching degree in industrial arts education from NC State, Mitchell sent a letter in 1978 to the school principal, Ernest Cutler, saying if he ever needed a shop teacher, he would be interested.
“I sent the letter from Raleigh on a Tuesday and the next day around 1 p.m., I got a phone call from Mr. Cutler,” Mitchell said. “I couldn’t believe the mail could get there so fast.”
The “Ocracoke effect” is when there are strong coincidences related to the island, and this was one of them.
The day the letter arrived, Cutler got some good news that there would be enough money for a full-time shop teacher, and at the end of the interview by phone call, Mitchell was hired. He held that position until 1981 when he left the island and taught industrial arts elsewhere in the state.
Returning to education after 25 years of being his own boss will be a transition.
“Our band, Molasses Creek, for a number of reasons is not touring much these days and, except for summer, I don’t have a fixed schedule,” he explained. “I thought teaching would be a way to reconnect with the kids and their families in the community and reconnect my love of building things and working with my hands.”
Mitchell, who was born in Burlington, grew up with two passions–music and building.
“As a kid I was always building things and tearing things apart and leaving them on my mother’s kitchen table,” he chuckled.
But his musical talents also were percolating as he learned guitar from his older brother, who was in a band, and appreciated the singing talent of his father while sitting beside him in church.
“I realized later that he was singing harmony,” said Mitchell.
He and his wife, Kitty, and fiddler David Tweedie formed the trio Molasses Creek in 1993 and have since recorded more than a dozen albums of both original and cover songs.
While Kim France is now the bass player in the band, Kitty Mitchell was the original bass player and also is a well-known painter and the Ocracoke School art teacher.
The school shop class is located on the first floor of the old firehouse on Back Road.
“I like that is has its own building with a drive-in garage door for larger items, and the equipment in there is truly amazing compared to what we had many years ago,” he said. “There’s a computer driven cutter, a laser cutter and a 3-D printer.”
He doesn’t want to spend a lot of time on something the students will rarely use.
“My focus will be to teach kids the fundamentals of using tools and develop carpentry skills,” he said.
During his first stint in the shop class, he taught basic woodworking and automotive repair, for which he still has an interest and will again teach along with repairing small engines, bicycles and golf carts.
The class is an elective for students in grades nine through 12.
The industrial arts program Mitchell will take over is strong due the innovative efforts of the previous teachers, Jeff Schleicher and Roger Meacham.