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Romeoville man finds joy in retirement with diving, volunteering at the Shedd Aquarium

Published: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 4:23 p.m. CDT
Caption
Thomas "Mitch" Mitchell, 79, of Romeoville, feeds rays, turtles and fish during a morning show at Shedd Aquarium's Caribbean Reef exhibit. (Photo by Brenna Hernandez)

ROMEOVILLE – In 2001, Romeoville resident Thomas Mitchell had a "re-birth" in the water.

But, unlike most water births, Mitchell, known to many as "Mitch," said he was born again in a wet suit inside a 90,000-gallon fish tank.

Mitchell is a scuba diver, and despite his 79 years of age, he's not letting up anytime soon.

Since he retired 12 years ago, Mitchell has been on 17 cruises and diving trips to Bahamas, Indonesia, most of the Caribbean Sea and Venezuela, among other places.

"Indonesia is, by far, the most amazing, exotic place that I have gone scuba diving," Mitchell said. "The fish and aquatic diversity is extraordinary."

He found his passion after retirement following an accomplished, 38-year sales career with Fortune 500 supplies chain solutions company RR Donnelley and another dozen years as founder of TJ Media, an independent consulting firm.

"I thought, 'What am I going to do next?'" Mitchell recalled wondering in the weeks after his retirement. "'Maybe I should get a motorcycle? No, I'd probably kill myself. Maybe I should learn to fly planes? No, I would probably kill myself.'"

Instead, he settled on scuba diving, which he explained as an adventurous but not death-defying hobby.

After two years of recreational diving, Mitchell was approached by a friend who recommended he volunteer at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium. He had visited the Shedd before, but it never dawned on him to become a volunteer diver.

However, in the words of the ever-adventurous Mitchell, "might as well give it a shot," he said.

Eight years ago, the retiree started volunteering two days a week at the Shedd Aquarium, accumulating more than 7,000 hours in about 750 sessions. Sometimes, Mitchell puts in 15- or 16-hour days, he said.

"I am a part of the divers who lead the shows in the Caribbean, mammal and wild reef tanks," Mitchell said, explaining that he leads morning, afternoon and evening demonstrations on Tuesdays and Thursdays. "We are also responsible for cleaning the tanks, food prep and feeding the animals."

This year, he stepped up his involvement in the Shedd's educational outreach programs, assisting in the aquarium's underwater robotics club.

Still, Mitchell's favorite part is leading demonstrations and interacting with Shedd patrons, he said, and he doesn't have any plans of stopping anytime soon.

"I love answering everybody's questions when underwater," Mitchell said, adding that his scuba mask is equipped with a microphone. "It's so great being approached by people who just want to talk to you and ask you what it's like being in the tank. I'm blessed, I want to do this for as long as possible."

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