When Richard Davey was appointed head of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in 2010, he was glad his predecessor, Bill Mitchell, was still around.
After spending six months as the MBTA’s interim general manager, Mr. Mitchell had returned to his previous job as the authority’s general counsel, which meant that Davey could easily turn to him for advice or encouragement.
“I came from outside the organization, so it was so helpful to me that he’d sat in my chair,’’ said Davey, who became the state’s transportation secretary in September. “If I was having a bad day, he’d be the first person I’d call for advice, to vent, or even to hear a joke. I felt so fortunate to have him as a mentor.’’
William A. Mitchell died of pancreatic cancer March 23 in Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 69 and had lived in Quincy all his life.
Mr. Mitchell served the Commonwealth in several capacities for more than 30 years. He began working for the MBTA as general counsel in 1995 and was interim general manager from fall 2009 to spring 2010, when Davey was hired.
Mr. Mitchell retired from his job as general counsel just weeks ago, on March 1.
Davey said Mr. Mitchell will be missed by everyone associated with the MBTA, “from the average employee to people at the top echelon of government.’’
“Bill was the type of public servant that we don’t have enough of these days,’’ he said. “He was selfless and dedicated and always the consummate gentleman. He loved the T, and he loved the people. He faced a lot of challenges, always with a sense of balance and purpose, as well as a sense of humor.’’
Born in Quincy, Mr. Mitchell went to Quincy High School and Bridgewater State College, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history. He then taught history and government to seventh-graders at Broad Meadows Middle School in Quincy for seven years.
In 1971, he met Corinne Donovan when she began working at Broad Meadows as an English teacher, and they married in 1974.
While teaching, Mr. Mitchell attended Suffolk University Law School at night and graduated in 1976.
“He was a very hard worker and always very interested in politics and government and history,’’ his wife said. “When he started working as an attorney, he just grew in so many directions. He really loved his work, and loved being in public service.’’
Mr. Mitchell was hired as an assistant attorney general and served three attorneys general. He worked in private practice for a short time before he was named general counsel to the MBTA in 1995.
At the MBTA, he served under five governors, 10 secretaries of transportation, and six MBTA general managers.
“It was a testament to his character’’ that he was never replaced when administrations changed, said Michael Mulhern, former general manager of the MBTA and currently head of the MBTA Retirement Fund, of which Mr. Mitchell had been a board member.
“He was very committed to the MBTA and very committed to the taxpayers of Massachusetts,’’ Mulhern said.
While Mr. Mitchell was a teacher, he coached football at the junior high level. As a manager, Mulhern said, “he had the personality of a coach.’’
“He was encouraging to, and very protective of, people who worked for him,’’ Mulhern said. “He was just a wonderful, wise man with a very warm personality.’’
When former state transportation secretary James Aloisi asked Mr. Mitchell to serve as interim general manager of the MBTA in August 2009, “he did so with great reluctance,’’ Aloisi said. “He was someone who shunned the spotlight. But he did so, combining humility, competence, quiet humor, and incredible grace under pressure. He was one of a kind.’’
Mr. Mitchell “always put the agency’s interest first’’ and “always had his eye on the horizon,’’ Mulhern said.
“So many people just live for today,’’ he said. “They don’t see that there’s a next chapter ahead. Bill always reminded me there was a next chapter.’’
When Mr. Mitchell was diagnosed with terminal cancer a year ago, he approached it “with the same strong-mindedness with which he approached everything,’’ said longtime friend Tom Kiley.
He “was very aggressive with his treatment,’’ Kiley said. “But he did not let his treatment stand in the way of things.’’
During the past year, Mr. Mitchell continued working for the MBTA, underwent chemotherapy, played golf, and traveled to Chicago and Ireland with his family.
Mr. Mitchell’s sister, Marcia McCarthy of Quincy, wrote about the trip to Ireland in a eulogy.
“We kissed the Blarney Stone, crossed the River Shannon, and looked with awe over the Cliffs of Moher,’’ she wrote, adding that “Bill traveled exceedingly well; he never complained.’’
Indeed, she added, Mr. Mitchell finished “all 18 holes in the pouring rain at Waterville.’’
“The rest of us were ready to quit on 17, but not Bill,’’ said McCarthy. “Bill was not a quitter.’’
Last month, Mr. Mitchell, who helped found the Granite Links Golf Club in Quincy, joined his usual quartet for an annual golfing weekend in Florida.
“He walked those 18 holes like always,’’ Kiley said. “He didn’t eat; he wasn’t able to keep any food down. But none of the guys knew about that.’’
In addition to his wife and sister, Mr. Mitchell leaves a daughter, Courtney of Quincy; a son, Michael of Los Angeles and Quincy; and another sister, Doris Seroll of Scituate.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Saturday in St. Ann Church in Quincy. Burial will follow in Blue Hill Cemetery in Braintree.
His daughter, a guidance counselor at Sterling Middle School in Quincy, recalled that her father “always wanted to hear stories about my day and any challenges I might be facing at work.’’
“He was a great listener and was always very thoughtful, always gave the best advice,’’ she said. “He had a really big job, but he was so humble and he took the time to talk to anyone, no matter how busy he was.’’