By Tom Rademacher The Grand Rapids Press
February 07, 2010, 6:00AM
For reasons no one really knows — maybe to teach us all a subtle lesson — Sanford E. Mitchell climbed into his car one day last month and drove about 250 miles from his home in Columbus, Ohio, to Jenison.
Nothing unusual about a road trip, under normal circumstances. But Mitchell, who is 79, recalls only bits and pieces of the trip, due to the early effects of Alzheimer’s.
The Ohio Missing Adult Alert System was activated, but it would be two long days before his family in Columbus would know whether he was dead or alive.
Thanks in large part to a gentleman by the name of Stephon Blackwell, Mitchell not only was alive, but ended up watching football and eating meatloaf and cornbread with mashed potatoes and green beans while waiting to be reunited with loved ones.
The drama began two weekends ago when Mitchell drove away from his Columbus apartment in his silver Toyota Camry.
The next untold number of hours is a big question mark, but this much is known: somehow, he made it safely to Jenison, where he parked his car, then wandered a short distance into the Speedway station at 279 Baldwin St.
Dave Barrett was working behind the counter when the driver approached and said he was just a couple of blocks from home and needed gas to make it the rest of the way.
About then, Stephon Blackwell came in. He is a regular patron and had just finished attending Sunday services at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church on Franklin Street SE in Grand Rapids.
“We call ourselves ‘The Friendly Church on the Corner,’” Blackwell told me.
Blackwell was only looking for some snacks to take to his home in Jenison when Barrett started sharing details about the elderly gentleman who had just walked in seeking fuel.
Both men realized from the way Mitchell talked and acted that something wasn’t adding up. For one, he was pointing in different directions to where he left his car.
He seemed confused in general.
This is the point in the story where you and I get to play multiple choice:
A. Leave the problem in the hands of the guy at the Speedway, or another.
B. Call a cop.
C. Assume the old codger will figure things out on his own.
D. Actually put into practice what so many wear on their wrists, challenging one another to consider “WWJD,” or “What Would Jesus Do?”
Without thinking twice, Blackwell, a 49-year-old painter with a wife and daughter, chose D.
“C’mon, man,” Blackwell said to Mitchell as they stood outside the Speedway. “Get in my truck. It’s cold out here.”
A call to family
Blackwell was able to get a phone number from Mitchell that linked to his daughter, but Mitchell didn’t remember the area code, only that she lived in Columbus.
Incredibly, Blackwell had recently done some painting in — of all places, Columbus — and it wasn’t long before he was connecting with Mitchell’s daughter, Sandra Phipps, 42.
“She was hollering. She was hysterical,” Blackwell recalled.
“She told me he’d been missing almost two days and that all of Columbus, Ohio, was looking for him.”
Later, Sandra would share that she was beside herself with worry, not knowing whether her father was dead or alive.
“I’m his daddy’s girl,” she said. “That’s my heart.”
Blackwell shared details with Sandra over the phone, building trust between the two of them, then posed a question: “Do you think it’s OK if I take him home today?”
Sandra said yes and that she would drive up to get him.
After giving her directions to his home, Blackwell and Mitchell drove off for Sunday dinner in his 2000 Chevy Silverado.
Gracious hostsStephon’s wife Lisa, 50, greeted them at the door. Daughter Alona, 8, took the old man’s coat. They prayed, then they ate, listening to Mitchell share stories of picking cotton in the South long before ending up in Ohio.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Blackwell of their guest, “he could eat. He probably hadn’t eaten in two days, but I don’t know. He didn’t say.”
In the basement, they watched football, two pro games that would set up today’s Super Bowl.
“He propped his legs up,” Blackwell said. “He was chilling.”
Sandra called every half hour to update her progress as she drove north with husband Rodney and a friend. It took them the better part of six hours.
When she arrived, “I hugged her,” said Blackwell, “and, then, she bolted down the steps and it was on. It was crazy. It was ‘Daddy, daddy, daddy,’ and they were both crying and hugging.
“We had a prayer and, then, they left.”
Mitchell’s daughter is a pastor at New Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Ohio, so she has had plenty of opportunity to preach about love and loss, affairs of the heart.
But this struck close to home and showed her in a personal way that “God is at work in everything” and how “He’s still working miracles today.”
I asked Blackwell what prompted him to take a stranger into his home, to feed him and entertain him and keep him warm. What made him choose D?
“I just thought,” the painter answered, “that when I saw him, I saw somebody’s father, somebody’s grandfather, standing there in the cold, standing there in the snow.”