Class of 1958, BS
Cold rooms, no running water, and a wood-burning stove to cook on – these were the amenities Norris Mitchell had while growing up in Carroll County, Virginia, in the late 1930s. When he was six years old, the family home was finally connected to the electric grid, but the youngster’s excitement was soon deflated. His parents decided to sell their dairy farm, and the move to a new agricultural venue meant no electricity again for several more years.
Going to school did not improve his comfort level much in those days either. The young Norris attended a one-room schoolhouse catering to the first seven grades, but with only about 30 children in attendance. The theme remained the same: no electricity and no plumbing. Andhe had an added class assignment — as he grew older, he became responsible for keeping the coal-fired stove burning.
Maybe this explains why Mr. Mitchell today is a partner in the owning of close to 1000 apartments and townhouses in the Mid-Atlantic under his business name of MG Apartments, and he can point proudly to all of the amenities they provide. Until recently, they owned a Comfort Inn on Glebe Road in the Washington, D.C., bedroom community of Arlington, Virginia.
Mr. Mitchell’s transition from country boy to real estate mogul found its way through Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. “Growing up, it was always a question of where I would go to college, not if. Same with my brother and two sisters. My mother went to college and became a teacher and a principal. In fact she was my teacher for first and second grades,” Mr. Mitchell recalls, and not without admitting laughingly that he “often bore the brunt of it.”
Historical records will show that he was in the last class to graduate from Sylvatus High School, about ten miles south of Hillsville, Virginia, which shut down in 1954, the same year segregation in U.S. public schools was ruled unconstitutional. At that time Sylvatus only went to the 11th grade. His class had about a dozen teenagers so “everyone had to be an athlete,” he smiles. He played baseball and basketball, but doesn’t recall any trophies coming to the tiny school. However, on the academic side, he was able to leave with a scholarship in hand for Lynchburg College where he spent his freshman year.
“I started to learn a little bit about the world, and decided aeronautical engineering was for me,” he says.
When he transferred to Virginia Tech, he was also able to secure a co-operative education appointment with the U.S. Navy at Patuxent River, Maryland. He worked in the performance section, collecting data on flight tests of aircraft carrier-based fighter aircraft.
As he enjoyed his work experience with the Navy during the winter and summer quarters, alternating with attending classes during his fall and spring quarters, he considered becoming a pilot, then settled on an engineering career involving missiles and rockets. He excelled in his coursework, with inductions into a few of the university’s honor societies, and served on the Honor Court Investigation Committee.
At the time of his graduation in 1958, Sputnik I had just orbited the Earth the previous fall, and the space race was on with the U.S. far behind the then Soviet Union. Everyone in his aerospace class was getting four or five job offers, but they were all over the nation. The country boy was not about to stay home.
“At that age, everything was an adventure,” Mr. Mitchell recalls. So when he elected to travel 3,000 miles across the country to join Douglas Aircraft of Long Beach, California, (a company that would later become McDonnell Douglas and ultimately merge with Boeing) no one was surprised. He spent two years in the Golden State working on aircraft development and then moving to its space division.
In 1960, he was transferred back East to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he labored behind locked doors performing classified work. While there, he served as the chief of the aerodynamics program, and worked on a number of proposals for peripheral parts of the space program. These included escape rockets to serve if a malfunction occurred, various steering components for the re-entry of space vehicles, and a range of Army missile programs.
In 1966, he was transferred to the Washington, D.C., office of Douglas Aircraft. The Cold War era provided an atmosphere of military tension between the Soviet Union and the U.S. and its western allies. Mr. Mitchell became one of about 25 scientists and engineers engaged in a think tank with the Research Analysis Corporation, performing weapon system analysis studies for the U.S. Army after leaving Douglas.
During this time, the Vietnam War was also raging. Mr. Mitchell’s efforts were mostly devoted to air defense projects. Among his projects, he worked on the Patriot Air and Missile Defense System, now considered the world’s most advanced air and missile defense system.
Eventually, a private company acquired the Research Analysis Corporation, and Mitchell relocated to Science Applications International Corporation, today called SAIC. “It was the same job, just a different employer,” Mr. Mitchell explains.
In 1968, Mr. Mitchell began mixing his more than full-time job with a desire to move into the real estate market and, with friends, purchased his first apartment building. He spent five years combining his full-time job with his increasing appetite for the real estate marketplace. “My transition was gradual,” he says, “and although the process was different, many of the concepts of things working together were not.”
In 1974, he changed careers completely, and moved his brainpower to his own entrepreneurial effort. He and his partner became MG Apartments, and they worked together full time, managing their expanding real estate. This partnership resulted from his early days at Douglas Aircraft where Mr. Mitchell had become friends with Joe Gardner. Gardner’s wife, Betty, sold Mr. Mitchell his home in Northern Virginia, one he says he “bought on a boot strap.” When Betty’s small firm lost its two business partners, she took it over, renaming it after herself, Gardner Home Realtors, and Mr. Mitchell soon became a 50-50 partner.
Along the way, Mr. Mitchell and a group of local Northern Virginia businessmen founded Virginia Commerce Bank, a commercial bank that has now grown to a $2.9 billion institution with 28 Northern Virginia branches. Mr. Mitchell is currently one of the two remaining founders on the bank’s board of directors.
In addition, one of his more satisfying enterprises was his service for 22 years as a member of the Flint Hill School’s Board of Trustees. He was vice chair of the board and chair of the building committee of this private school in Oakton, Virginia. His position allowed him to oversee the design and construction of a new upper school building and campus, allowing for a student body of approximately 1100 students. He remains a trustee emeritus of the board of trustees.
Mr. Mitchell’s real estate holdings took a nostalgic turn when he built a second home for his family, back in his old stomping grounds of Carroll County. He and his partner also purchased what would become the Olde Mill Resort, an 800 acres planned resort community, including a golf course in Carroll County, near the bucolic Blue Ridge Parkway.
Although Mr. Mitchell acknowledges that he himself doesn’t drive a golf cart around 18 holes, he does admit that his personal expanding real estate allows him to house and keep running his 20 or so antique cars that he has collected since the early 1980s. “When I was young, I always wanted a Model A,” he reveals. But his prize vehicle was identified when he traveled through Memphis, Tennessee, and saw the jet black Stutz Blackhawk on a Pontiac Grand Prix chassis owned by the infamous Elvis Presley. “It was a beautiful car,” the antique connoisseur says. One sits in his collection today, and is sheltered by his four-car garage attached to the Carroll County home. Two more “car barns” exist on the property.
In his seventies, Mr. Mitchell has no plans to retire. “I can’t imagine getting up in the morning with nothing to do,” he explains. But he and his wife do travel, mostly within the U.S. these days. They sojourn to their favorites places such as Yellowstone Park, and other states in the west. When he is at his McClean, Virginia, home, he has solace in the fact that he lives near his work, yet in a wooded community.
An avid Hokie, Mr. Mitchell says he has always had “an infinity” for Virginia Tech. “It allowed me to get through school. The mechanics were set up so I could get a job.”
So he has given back many times over, establishing the Mitchell Professorship in aerospace and ocean engineering, held by world-class researcher Rakesh Kapania. The Mitchells also added a scholarship endowment in the same department. He is a charter member of the University’s Ut Prosim Society.
He has already created the Mitchell Foundation that is geared towards education and medical research. His interest in the latter came from his concern about the daughter of his real estate partners who was in a car accident that left her a quadriplegic. The same partners also have a grandson who is paralyzed.
“If I had stayed with the think tank, I never would have been able to” become a philanthropist, Mr. Mitchell adds. “It was the right choice at the right time to make that move.”
Updated and modified November 2021
Class of: 1958
Year Inducted into Academy: 2012