Everyone's life has a story. In "Lives," we tell some of those stories about North Shore people who have died recently. "Lives" runs Mondays in The Salem News.
BEVERLY — Alvin Mitchell grew up poor, part of one of the only black families in Beverly during the Great Depression. Those were hard times, hard enough to tear his family apart.
But his story isn't what you think, not if you talk to his little sister Olive Boccia.
"Our house was always the one where everyone would come," she said. It would fill with people from all over Beverly, and especially from their predominantly Italian neighborhood. "Because there was always music at our house. Our house was like the recreation center."
For Alvin, who died July 2 at age 92, there were opportunities to take his talents — which were considerable — out to the big wide world, but he never left Beverly and never wanted to.
"He loved Beverly," said nephew Joe Boccia, Olive's son. "Beverly was his place. He was proud of Beverly."
The Mitchells trace their ancestors on the North Shore back at least to the early 1800s in Essex.
"We're country people," Olive Boccia said.
At that, they cultivated a kind of Yankee resilience. At one point, the bad times got worse. Alvin's dad disappeared, abandoning the family. "Al had to become the father of the family," Joe Boccia said. "He helped raise my mother."
Later, Olive said, Mitchell would give up his chance to go to college so that she could attend instead.
When his mother, Mary, lost her job, she did an extraordinary thing. In the face of these setbacks and the worst economic conditions in the country's history, she went out and started a business, the Mitchell Dance Studio. Camp Mitchell followed later.
The family runs both to this day with the camp now in Essex. At both, Alvin Mitchell taught dance for much of his life, going from tap and ballroom to ballet and hip-hop as the styles changed.
Mitchell, Beverly High School Class of 1937, also made his mark in sports, setting the school record in the 100-yard dash. (His mom, fearing he was a bit spindly for it, forbid him from playing football.)
Moreover, Olive said, he was considered for the U.S. Olympic Team in 1936, but she believes he was left off to satisfy misplaced concerns that too many black athletes would strike the wrong note at what became the Jesse Owens Olympics in Hitler's Berlin.
By contrast, Olive said, color didn't seem to matter much in Beverly. "We never really noticed," she said, adding, "Not everybody likes you anyway." And if the Mitchells were struggling, "Everybody was in the same boat."
The Olympics wasn't Alvin's first brush with potential fame, either, Olive said. As a preschooler, he auditioned to play a role in a Hollywood film after the producer of the original "Our Gang"/"Little Rascals" comedies made a trip to Boston. Her brother was just about the cutest kid imaginable, Olive said, referencing a photo from the era. Even so, somebody else got the role of Buckwheat.
Starting as a drummer, Mitchell became a fixture with Manuel's Original Black & White Orchestra while fresh out of high school. He eventually mastered the saxophone, too. The outfit had been formed by his uncles, and the music was good enough to serve as a warm-up for visiting bands, including the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey.
Mitchell might have struck out to make a name for himself in the national music world.
"He had offers," his sister said. Yet he already had a name in Beverly.
A deacon of the First Baptist Church, he was elected four times to the School Committee. While ineligible to serve himself, he was given the difficult, thankless job of sitting on the draft board during World War II.
In latter years he won the city's first Martin Luther King Jr. Award and a youth award from the YMCA. He organized shows for the Catholic Youth Organization.
"He was very giving," Olive Boccia said. "He would give you the shirt off his back. ... He loved people."
While he never married — "He said nobody could stand him," Olive said with a laugh. "He had to be the boss." — Mitchell married plenty of others as a justice of the peace for 28 years.
Meanwhile, he devoted himself to a nephew and a niece (Joyce) and, in turn, to their children. "He was like a second father to us," Joe Boccia said.
About a decade ago, Mitchell lost his vision. But even that didn't stop him. If he could get a ride, he joined a group going to local nursing homes and playing music. And he followed local teams, like the Red Sox and Celtics, with a lifelong passion.
"He never planned on retiring," Joe Boccia said with a chuckle. "I think that's how he survived as long as he did." With his passing, he says, "It's very sad. But he had a very good life."