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Henry Mitchell Brickell, educational innovator, dies at 92

Henry Mitchell "Mitch" Brickell was a nationally respected

Henry Mitchell "Mitch" Brickell was a nationally respected educator. Credit: Brickell Family

Growing up in a small town, Henry Mitchell "Mitch" Brickell thought his school could do a better job teaching him. That love of education, and desire to improve it, drove him to become a nationally respected educator who wrote books and lectured across the country.

An innovator in educational reform, Brickell devised a system for organizing the policies and bylaws for school boards, and the Davies-Brickell System remains in place in districts across the nation.

Brickell, 92, of Manhasset, died Oct. 25 after a decadelong struggle with Parkinson's disease.

Brickell was a firm yet loving parent, and his children said they saw his love of teaching even at home. He often became their teacher as he enlisted them in home improvement projects and transformed a dinner conversation into a discussion on poverty.

"He was always in teaching mode," said his daughter, Sally Brickell, 60, of Newton, Massachusetts. "He was probably a little more enthusiastic about those home projects than we were. But I can look back on them with gratitude."

Born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Brickell and his family also lived in New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida, before he left home to earn a bachelor's degree from The Ohio State University and a master's degree in education from the University of Chicago. He earned a second master's degree and a doctorate in education from Columbia University's Teachers College in 1953.

He met Mary Daly while they both attended Ohio State, and they reconnected as young graduate students in Chicago. When she spotted him there, she thought he looked like he needed a meal, their children recalled. The couple went to dinner and married within a year.

Brickell was recruited by the Manhasset public school system and rose to become the assistant superintendent of schools in the 1960s. In the early sixties, he had authored a report for the New York State Education Department called "Organizing New York State for Educational Change," which helped improve the state's elementary and secondary schools.

"He drove himself harder than anybody else," said his son, Mark Brickell, 67, of Manhattan. He also pushed his children to do their best. "It was a way he expressed his affection. He believed we could achieve at a high level."

Mark Brickell recalled how his father passed on his work ethic to his kids. When he was a college student, his father asked his help to proofread a study. The two worked for 35 hours in two days. 

"I remember my father waking me up on the couch in the morning, so I could get back to work," Mark Brickell recalled. "He had worked through the night."

Brickell often educated the educators. He taught at Stanford University and served as associate dean of the school of education at Indiana University.

He believed that school principals should spend time observing teachers in the classroom, "not sitting pushing papers in their office," said Sally Brickell.

After returning to Manhasset in 1969, Brickell established a nonprofit organization called Policy Studies in Education in 1973. The group worked with hundreds of school districts across the United States to improve K-12 education, and it conducted studies for more than 200 colleges, his children said.

His specialties included educating school board members on their responsibilities to their districts, communities and local governments, said Regina Paul, 66, of Phoenix, who worked with him. His work empowered many school boards, allowing them to better manage the school superintendents in their districts, she said.

He recruited Paul in 1975 and groomed her to eventually become the president of the nonprofit. The two wrote education books together.

"He gave me my whole career," Paul said. "Most things I know today, I've learned from him."

His children said it was their father's little lessons — "you don't leave tools outside" and "things don't break; people break things" — that taught them about responsibility and doing a job right.

"I'm very strong-minded and hardworking, and looking at how things could work better," said Sally Brickell. 

Her brother echoed that sentiment.

"For me, he taught me about dedication to what you're doing, to do it very well," he said.

Brickell is also survived by his wife of 66 years, Mary Brickell; a daughter, Julia; a son, Todd; 11 grandchildren and four great-grandsons.

A memorial service will be 2 p.m. Sunday at the Congregational Church of Manhasset. Brickell will be laid to rest at Glenwood Cemetery in Yazoo City.

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