John Drescher

Drescher: Judge Mitch McLean had own style, lived large

Judge Mitchell McLean
Judge Mitchell McLean

Good for you.

That’s what Mitch McLean would say to his friends when they had good news in their lives. Good for you. I’m happy for you.

McLean said that often because he had a lot of friends. More than 1,000 of them attended his memorial service recently in Wilkesboro.

McLean, 54, was chief district court judge in his part of northwestern North Carolina. He died July 3 at Sunset Beach. McLain had just arrived on the beach. The sun was out. He hugged his wife. Their sons, 14 and 12, were nearby.

But something was wrong. People were struggling in the water with rip currents. He ran into the water to help a couple. Police credited McLean for saving the man. But the man’s wife died. So did McLean.

Talk about courage: McLean hated the water. Jay Vannoy, McLean’s former law partner, remembers taking McLean duck hunting and getting into a boat.

“Jay, I hate water. I can’t believe you got me out here,” McLean told him. But on July 3, when people he didn’t know needed help, McLean didn’t hesitate. “Mitch had a very big heart,” Vannoy told me. “As he often said on the bench, he was there to help people.”

Vannoy can still hear him say: Good for you, Jay.

Just a good guy

McLean loved basketball. He was an excellent player at Wilkes Central High School and coached youth teams for years. He liked helping kids.

He was a good athlete. But when he took up golf in his 40s, he struggled. Friend Ed Gregory of Wilkesboro remembered when he first saw McLean play golf. Gregory razzed McLean by telling him his golf swing reminded him of McLean’s dancing: All he could see were knees and elbows. “He was just a good guy that everybody liked,” said Gregory, a superior court judge.

Gregory can still hear him say: Good for you, Ed.

Ron Spivey of Winston-Salem, also a superior court judge, sometimes would eavesdrop on proceedings from the back of McLean’s courtroom. He said McLean, whom he’d known since law school at Wake Forest, had the perfect judicial temperament, a blend of law-and-order and compassion.

A few weeks ago, Spivey revoked an offender’s probation in Ashe County and sent him to jail. Shortly after, Spivey toured the jail and saw the repeat offender.

The man had heard about McLean’s death. He asked Spivey whether he would be seeing McLean’s family. “Would you do me a favor?” the man said. “Tell them he was a fair man.” Spivey thought: You don’t hear offenders talk about many judges that way.

Like all of McLean’s friends, Spivey remembered McLean’s bright, stylish clothes. “He could wear a purple shirt and a yellow tie,” Spivey chuckled. “It worked for him. You’d think he walked out of GQ.”

Spivey can still hear him say: Good for you, Ron.

Uniquely Mitch

McLean grew up in Wilkes County and lived most of his life there. He embodied the best of small-town North Carolina. He was friendly. He took an interest in people. He listened to them. He tried to make a difference.

He did it with his own style that was uniquely Mitch. He was a prodigious storyteller. He liked to shop at convenience stores. He loved his wife, his sons, the Allman Brothers and loud clothes. He lived life large.

As his friends gathered recently to take the measure of his life, in a service that lasted nearly two hours, what they were saying was: Good for you, Mitch.

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