A Hero at 10
John Mitsules was born in 1940 in Tacoma. When his father, a Greek immigrant from the Isle of Rhodes, became estranged from his wife in 1944, John and his brothers, Joe and Larry, were placed in Tacoma’s St. Ann’s Orphanage. At the age of 10, John was honored with a Catholic Boy Scouts of America’s Medal for Bravery for having rescued a classmate who had fallen into a icy pond.
Mitsules next attended Briscoe Memorial School in Kent. In his memoir, The St. Ann's Kid, he recalls the strict, often brutal discipline enforced by the school’s masters, Christian Brothers of Ireland. After a brief stay with his mother in New Mexico, Mitsules returned to Tacoma and completed high school at Bellarmine Prep.
From Gung-Fu to Pleiku
After graduating, Mitsules was hired by Bernie Brotman to manage his men’s clothing store in Seattle’s University District. He became friends and later a roommate of Bruce Lee (1940-1973), a Bernie’s customer at the time, from whom he learned Gung-Fu and other advanced martial arts techniques. Mitsules was also initiated into Seattle politics while helping a controversial African American activist, Keve Bray. Bray was later implicated in an attempt to blow up Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman’s limousine. He was finally murdered in Colorado.
Mitsules joined the U.S. Army in 1965 and quickly earned his sergeant’s stripes as a martial arts instructor and military policeman. He was assigned to Pleiku, Vietnam, where he directed casualty identification programs. Mitsules often traveled to combat zones and narrowly escaped several attacks, helicopter accidents, and encounters with venomous wildlife. He rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant E-6, despite only three years of service, and was awarded the Bronze Star upon leaving Vietnam and the Army in July 1968.
Mitsules returned to Seattle’s University District amid rising student protests against the war. Despite his recent military duty, John regarded Vietnam “to be a political war ... and my viewpoints were essentially moderate because I could understand both positions, hawks and doves. Although most of my friends were antiwar and believed that major political leaders were dead wrong, I was beginning to view my role as being a person who focused on bringing people together” (The St. Ann's Kid, p. 95).
John’s commitment to and skills in community peacemaking were quickly tested by the youth riots which rocked the University District in August 1969. Working with other business and community leaders, notably Cal McCune (1911-1996), Mitsules helped restore order to “the Ave,” win reassignment of overly aggressive police officers, and establish the U District Center to house and serve “street people” and foster intergenerational communication in the neighborhood.
During this same time, Mitsules met young State Senator Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) and joined his successful campaign for mayor in 1969. Uhlman hired Mitsules two years later to organize the expansion of federal Model City programs into Seattle’s Ballard and Greenwood neighborhoods. Mitsules became a leading champion of expanded citizen participation, affirmative action, and the “Little City Halls” program as an aide to Uhlman, Deputy Mayor Robert Gogerty, and Model City Director Walter Hundley (1929-2002), but he also made powerful enemies on the Seattle City Council, who attacked him as a “ward heeler.”
Mitsules worked on Wes Uhlman’s re-election campaign in 1973, Uhlman's defeat of an attempted 1975 recall, and his unsuccessful bid for governor in 1976. Mitsules left city employment and became an aide to the Democratic Caucus of the Washington State Senate. Walter Hundley, who became Seattle Superintendent of Parks and Recreation in 1976, hired Mitsules in 1984 to reorganize and improve the park system’s security programs. Mitsules served in this capacity until disabled by advancing blindness and diabetes in 1995.
Upon his retirement, Mitsules wrote a candid and revealing memoir of his experiences, especially in the 1960s and early 1970s. “That is a difficult culture to re-create as you age,” he admits. “I miss the social activism. We all do.”
John Mitsules died in Seattle of complications of diabetes on August 14, 2002, at the age of 62. He was survived by his former wife, Lana Lea Switzer, and their daughters, Shawn and Megan Tai, a Vietnamese orphan who was evacuated from Saigon shortly before the city’s fall in April 1975.