Palm Desert residents Earl and Sandra Mitchell started out as high school sweethearts; today, they are retirees who finish each other’s sentences. Their paths in life were formed by higher education, but they’re now tapping into artistic skills they’d pushed into the background while pursuing professional careers.
Earl, 73, was born in Albuquerque, N.M., into a family with one brother and five sisters. His family moved to Compton, Calif., when he was 10. Sandra, 72, was born in Riverside and raised in Compton, with a brother and two sisters.
Earl and Sandra married when she was 19, and he was 20.
“When I was in high school, I fell in love with a beautiful girl, but I had to get permission,” Earl says with a laugh, “because at that time, guys had to be 21 to marry on their own.”
After high school, Earl studied at California State University, Los Angeles, majoring in business, accounting and finance. “I was then blessed to get a scholarship to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,” he says.
He worked as an accountant for 25 years.
“He was closed off in his room, studying like crazy (for his CPA), and I felt like I was slipping food trays under the door,” laughs Sandra.
Earl eventually changed directions and went into education, getting a doctorate in educational leadership from University of La Verne, and working as an assistant dean at Santa Ana College, before becoming finance director and eventually a dean. He retired as a teacher of accounting and finance.
Sandra attended her mom’s alma mater—Langston University in Oklahoma, originally as a music major.
“My mom exposed us all to music,” she says, “and I loved classical piano.”
But after a year, she wanted to return home. She married Earl at age 19, and then continued her education at California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles.
“But I knew I should get practical, so I went on to Cal State L.A. majoring in English,” she says. She followed Earl to Illinois and went on to get a master’s degree in elementary education, teaching and working in curriculum development and child development for 22 years. She also worked for a time as a pharmaceutical rep for Proctor and Gamble.
Earl and Sandra originally bought an investment house in Palm Springs, but as they prepared for retirement, a friend said they should look at Sun City. They did, settling in the Coachella Valley in 2011—and rediscovering a love of music.
Earl says he always knew he had a “decent” voice, all the way back to middle school, but he never had the courage to sing in public until he retired.
“My brother got me to join the choir, so I had to learn how to sing harmony, but being raised in a family with seven kids, I knew I had to be able to pay the bills,” he says. “I always said that when I retired, I was going to sing. It was easy for me to create lyrics, but I didn’t really know music.”
Recalls Sandra: “In high school, when he was courting me, he would make records for me. It was so sweet.”
Earl enrolled in voice classes at College of the Desert, and now bills himself as “a new voice in the desert,” crooning from the Great American Songbook with shows at Sun City.
“I always made sure there was a piano in the house,” says Sandra, “but I really wasn’t doing music while I was teaching, other than being the accompanist for the holiday programs. However, I always did plan to go back to music someday.”
Sandra now also makes movies to commemorate special occasions—weddings, memorials and parties, for friends and family. “It allows me to lovingly and creatively commemorate treasured events for others,” she says. “Over the past five years, I’ve added over 100 of these movies to my collection.”
Earl and Sandra work as a team to put on shows in the community. “When we don’t have live music,” says Sandra, “I create the musical playlist and serve as the DJ and emcee. We contribute all proceeds from singing events to VELA Youth Fund, Inc., our nonprofit which provides financial assistance to deserving black youth in the United States, the Caribbean and Africa.”
VELA was conceived in 2016. It is named for Earl’s parents, Vessie and Leon (Mitchell), and Sandra’s parents, Elva and Aidsand (Riggins). “Our mission is to help black youth, especially during middle school years, when they are most at risk,” says Earl. “In Africa, it’s about survival, as well as education. It’s primarily education in the Caribbean, and in the U.S., it’s about youth development. Even here, there’s a need for safety nets. It’s too easy for kids to make wrong choices about what’s important in their communities, like joining gangs.”
VELA funds scholarships and partners with other charitable projects, with an eye toward eventually eliminating the need for such programs.
Earl and Sandra have three children, two sons and a daughter. Daughter Emily is also a singer whose career has taken her to Broadway.
“We always thought our kids should know how to play an instrument,” says Sandra. “One played the violin, and we considered getting an accordion, but the salesman took one look at us when we opened the door, said he left something in his car, and never came back.”
Earl adds, “You’d think someone selling an accordion would be more interested in a commission than what we looked like.”
After successful professional careers and during an active retirement, what advice do Earl and Sandra have?
Earl: “Work at having joy at all times. We’re happy when all is well and we feel good, but joy is to be happy when things don’t go well. A good habit to acquire is when something goes wrong, just say, ‘Thank you Lord,’ and reflect on the various blessings you’ve received.”
Sandra: “Recognize your God-given talents and abilities, and use them every chance you get. You may not succeed in every situation, but you sure as heck will accomplish a lot more than if you don’t try at all.”
Earl and Sandra Mitchell are two people who live their truth and are making the most of what they have accomplished to help others.
“After getting an education and having great careers, in retirement, we had to give back.” Earl says. And so they do.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.