The Man Who Gives

Sunday 6.8.2014 @ 11:57am | ImagesAZ | Inspiration

Photo Credit: Bryan Black

Dennis Mitchem, a cherished figure affectionately known around Phoenix as “Denny,” was getting a bunch of wrong-number calls; apparently, the answering service for a physician’s office gave patients the wrong number, which turned out to be Denny’s.


He took the inconvenience with patient good nature, even joking with one caller about how federal budget cuts were probably were behind the mishap. Amongst the wrong numbers was an intentional dial, son Scott Mitchem calling his father “to hit me up for a donation.”


Ah, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, even a sturdy, far-reaching tree with limbs stretching out farther and farther, wherever fruit is needed, wherever giving will help.


For most of his 83 years (his birthday was May 26), Denny Mitchem has been giving. When not being hit up for donations, he is often putting the arm on friends and colleagues to make contributions to non-profits around Phoenix. On top of that, he has served on dozens of committees, often involved in civic planning projects. “Volunteering is something that’s just natural, something you just do,” says this modest man who has touched so many.


Denny takes a casual “it’s just what I do” attitude about his volunteering; others, like Steve Helfgot, are warmed by the glow of Mitchem’s legacy. “Denny’s an icon,” says Helfgot, CEO of the Maricopa Community College Foundation. “He is part of the generation that started the process of transforming Phoenix into the community it is today.”


Helfgot notes that Denny Mitchem was in the background of just about every important Phoenix business or philanthropic effort he can think of over the last five decades, always asking, “What can I do to help? What do you need?”


Mitchem literally helped build Phoenix. Decades ago, he became consumed with the notion that the city needed to improve its freeway system. He chaired a half-dozen committees, studying and promoting various freeway plans, and brokered key compromises between pro-freeway and anti-growth groups that led to pavement being laid.


For that and his varied other good works, the Phoenix Advertising Club in 1983 named him “Man of the Year,” inducting him in the ranks with names like Barry Goldwater, who was the first to be tapped with the title.


A half-century ago, Mitchem was an accountant at a new Phoenix firm, drawing the line at Sundays but still working six days, 55 hours per week - and volunteering, on top of that. “I got so involved with the community, people would say ‘Denny’s the salesman.’ I wasn’t, I was an auditor; but I was always out working in the community, doing so many things,” he says.


Perhaps the greatest contribution this special volunteer has made is that commodity many of us deem priceless: time. For Mitchem, giving his time is as natural as giving someone the time of day.


“I have been a volunteer all my life,” he says. “Volunteering goes in the family. I observed my parents volunteering in many ways. I grew up in a small town in Nebraska. My dad was chief of the volunteer fire department and my mom was head of the county Red Cross during World War II. And my dad was the local telegraph operator – my mom and dad would deliver messages around town. Those are my first memories of volunteers.”


After beginning a career as a certified public accountant in Chicago in 1954, Denny Mitchem launched his long volunteer career by helping the local chapter of the United Way with a fund-raising project. A few years later, he moved to the Phoenix area, where his four children, Dennis Jr., Hope, Scott and Amy, were raised. “They’re all involved in volunteering. My wife volunteered with Goodwill, Desert Botanical Gardens and many committees, and all my kids are involved as volunteers.”


In 1959, Denny Mitchem began a long relationship with Goodwill of Central Arizona, helping to raise capital for a headquarters building. Since then, he has been an unpaid member of the Goodwill board of directors twice and served on various Goodwill committees and fundraising efforts.


“My fundamental interests are things that make it possible for the disadvantaged to go to work,” Mitchem says. “I have a long interest in the Maricopa Community Colleges, and the scholarship fund for those Goodwill has worked with. The next step (for them) is to go to Maricopa Community Colleges to get more skills.”


The Maricopa Community College Foundation has provided $14 million in scholarships over 30 years. Denny Mitchem has been closely involved with the foundation for almost as long. “The two organizations that I’ve spent the longest periods with are Goodwill and the Maricopa Community Colleges. They have similar goals, similar missions.”


Though he is best known for his unpaid service, Denny has done an extraordinary amount of work with other non-profit organizations. “As a CPA, I did work for non-profits at cost, everything from the Red Cross to South Mountain Mental Health, the Foundation for Blind Children and the (Phoenix) Symphony.”


His motto, whether working for money or causes: “If you’re going to go very far in an organization, you have to have passion.” His passions for helping Phoenix grow, and reaching out to help the disadvantaged, have made him a very busy man for the last six decades.


He has been an unpaid chair of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and helped found the Greater Phoenix Leadership. He also served as executive director of Habitat of Humanity Valley of the Sun, and helped found the Phoenix 40/Greater Phoenix Leadership group.


He has also been a volunteer leader with the Northern Arizona University, Herberger Theater, the ASU College of Business Council of 100, Phoenix Visitors and Convention Bureau, Citizens Bond Committee, Residents for Safe and Efficient Transportation, Valley of the Sun United Way Campaign and other organizations.


Twenty-two years after retiring from Arthur Andersen, he has finally slowed down a good bit. He would probably be far more active in his volunteerism, were it not for severe arthritis. He uses a cane to walk, and spends quiet days and evenings with Betty, his wife of 41 years, and Annie Oakley, the family dog who came from the Humane Society. “Genuine Phoenix street dog,” says Denny, from the cozy living room of a sprawling condo in central Phoenix.


He shakes his head as he looks at Annie, hunkered down on a plush carpet, perhaps dreaming of her days chasing rabbits. “She’s getting gray in the mouth,” Denny says, passing his look to Betty. “We’re all getting old.”


Denny Mitchem smiles, with warmth rather than bitterness, perhaps reflecting on the richness of the giving life.


“He’s a rare delight,” Steve Helfgot says of Denny. “And there’s not many like him left from his generation.


“He’s real precious, to us.”


Writer Tom Scanlon

Photographer Bryan Black