Springfield resident Mary T. Mitchell, 86, wanted to honor the legacy of her husband, George Mitchell, who pioneered the electronic funds transfer in the U.S. banking system in the 1970s. So she spent five years writing a biography of the man John F. Kennedy appointed to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve (1961-1976). He served as its vice chairman from 1973-76.
Her book is called “A Search for Understanding,” and it tells the story of George Mitchell’s financial wizardry, his interest in art collecting, fly-fishing, going to the theater, and other personal details. He died of a massive heart attack in 1997 at age 92. The couple was married for 32 years.
“He was a person of very high character and integrity,” said Mary Mitchell, a resident of the Greenspring Village retirement community. “He was a very strong, no-nonsense type.”
Elliott McEntee, 64, of Falls Church, worked with George Mitchell, called him an innovator who led the Federal Reserve in moving toward electronic banking. “He was a great visionary in terms of looking at the needs of the country to move toward electronic payments instead of relying on paper checks.”
Mary Mitchell traveled all over the world with him — to places like Japan, Brussels and Munich — often taking care of the details and crunching the numbers for him.
“He had a brilliant career,” when he worked as director of finance under Adlai Stevenson, she said. “Those who worked for him were very fond of him.”
Stephen Dewhurst, who wed George’s step-daughter, called him a man of great integrity. “He was one of the straightest arrows I ever knew. He just led through example and determination.”
He said they spent a lot of time talking about the Debit Card and electronic funds transfer. “He wanted to move society away from paperwork,” he said.
Mary Mitchell was originally from Alton, Ill., earned a master’s degree in mathematics. She worked as a technician reporting to senior economists at the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago where George Mitchell was the head of the research department.
George Mitchell was originally from Richland Center, Wisc., and had a background in economics and statistics. In 1964, she got a job at the FDIC in Washington in bank supervision and research and stayed for 20 years.
The couple knew each other for 12 years before marrying in November 1964. Mary Mitchell had two children from a previous marriage, and George Mitchell had four. They raised their close-knit blended family in an eight-room home on North Quebec Street in Arlington. The home was always a busy and bustling place that accommodated their extensive art collection of 100 or so pieces from the Southwest. George Mitchell was also an avid landscaper and good cook as well.
“He was a very good father to his children and grandchildren,” Mary Mitchell said. “He followed their careers very carefully. … They were always welcome in our home.” Today they have 21 grandchildren and 44 great-grandchildren.
On the recommendation of Robert C. Holland, a former friend and colleague, Mary Mitchell decided to write the 331-page book for her children, while at the same time suffering from macular degeneration. She hired a secretary to type her hand-written manuscript that became the book published through iUniverse, Inc.
“I wanted to bring together a complete record of what their father had done for the state of Illinois and for the Federal Reserve System,” she said.
“I could handle his personal life, but it became evident that you can’t talk about monetary policy if you don’t know much about it,” Mary Mitchell said. So she spent a lot of time analyzing the annual reports of the Federal Reserve Board and her late husband’s manuscripts, documents and speeches.
Her husband worked on the Debit Card and helped to design the means by which money could be deposited electronically. “He started talking about this subject as early as 1959, when nobody else was cognizant of the potential,” she said. “He drove himself hard. He drove his staff hard to accomplish this.”
THE PROCESS was time-consuming, she said, and occasionally George Mitchell was ridiculed in The Washington Post, she said, because it took so long.
In the late 1970s, he helped the Air Force launch its electronic funds transfer. Afterwards, the electronic funds process took hold nationwide. In 1995, he received an award from the U.S. Treasury for his work in the field.
“He had foresight,” she said. “It never bothered him that people thought he was strange for coming up with these ideas because he knew that the product was going to be good.”