By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
Willie Mae Mitchell spent five decades as a Del Ray resident and almost three as a
business owner on the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare.
Mitchell, who died at 83 on July 7, was perhaps best known for the prominent, colorful hats she wore around town and sold at her long-running business, Tops of Old Town, at 2400 Mt. Vernon Ave.
Members of her family and her neighbors in Del Ray remember her kindness, faith and generosity.
“She was a loving and giving person. She gave to all the different organizations that would call and she loved to go and feed the seniors who were shut in and sick,” said her daughter, Sheila Mitchell.
Sheila Mitchell has worked in her mother’s store since it opened in its original location at the intersection of King and West streets in 1987. It was initially part boutique, part beauty salon. A few years after opening, the business moved to the location where it has remained for nearly 30 years.
“She always loved to dress and always thought that women were supposed to have their hair did. One part of the store was for your outfits and [at that time] we had three floors and the third floor was the beauty salon,” Sheila Mitchell said.
Willie Mae Mitchell, who was born Sept. 15, 1934 in Shorter, Alabama, near Tuskegee, first moved to Alexandria in the mid-1960s with her husband, who was in the U.S. Army and was stationed at the Pentagon. She raised her five children, Veronica, Guy, Sheila, Lora and Ramona, in the city.
Before opening her business, Mitchell worked as a crossing guard for the Alexandria Police Department and later worked for the Arlington Police Department in parking enforcement.
She opened her shop in Old Town before retiring from the department.
Her main passion in life, other than family and fashion, was helping others.
“She loved helping people. I think that’s what she was here for, to help people,” Sheila Mitchell said. “The neighbors loved her and she loved all her neighbors. If she thought something was wrong, she’d talk to the neighbors.”
Mellenie Runion, Willie Mae Mitchell’s neighbor since 1991, said Mitchell was always thinking about the residents of her little neighborhood at the northern end of Del Ray.
“She was always praying for everyone when something went wrong. You knew she was keeping an eye out and she was always very positive,” Runion said. “I don’t think she cared for dogs, but she always asked how my dog was doing and I always thought that was sweet. … I kind of viewed her like my mom.”
Runion was invited to Mitchell’s 80th birthday party, where, she said, friends and family
gathered to talk about what she meant to them.
“It was so thoughtful that her family pulled together all of these wonderful people to talk about her before she was gone. She was decked out to the nines with a big fur collar and a big hat,” Runion said.
Runion said Mitchell was friendly to those who weren’t necessarily friendly to her. A family that previously lived in Runion’s home, for example, didn’t even allow their children to fetch a ball if it rolled into Mitchell’s yard. Still, Mitchell ran over to help the neighbor when he fell ill.
Runion said Mitchell had an enduring commitment to the area.
“She was here for so long and withstood all of the various controversies, prices in rent and various problems and issues over the years. It’s just exceptional that she kept trudging on through and watched her business grow and shrink, grow and shrink,” she said.
Pat Miller, a longtime Del Ray resident and Del Ray Business Association board member, said Mitchell was a pioneering business owner on the avenue.
“Willie Mae was an amazing lady. Many people may not know that she was one of the original retail store[s] in Del Ray and has maintained her business through many, many years,” Miller said by email. “Everyone would brag about what hat they got for the [Kentucky] Derby from Willie Mae.”
Miller remembered that Mitchell always greeted her while walking from Tops of Old Town to the bank with a smile and a wave.
“She will be missed,” Miller said. “An amazing lady and such a key part of our Del Ray community.”
Miller and Sue Kovalsky, president of Del Ray Business Association, both remembered Mitchell modeling one of her signature hats at the runway at a First Thursday that had a fashion theme.
“There was Willie Mae with one of those big, beautiful hats walking up the runway. It was fantastic,” Kovalsky said. “It took a little bit of talking to get her to do it. She was very humble, but she really strutted herself and wore it beautifully.”
Kovalsky said, even though she didn’t know Mitchell well, she would remember her as a pillar of the community, both as a resident and as a business owner.
“She was important in getting Del Ray to be this destination, the avenue that it is now,” she said.
Mitchell was a member of St. Paul Temple Church of God in Christ in Washington, D.C., where a visitation was held Saturday at 11 a.m., followed by a funeral service at noon. A reception took place at Mt. Vernon Community Center, in close proximity to where Mitchell lived and worked for so many years.
Runion said she would remember Mitchell as a determined woman with a big personality.
“She was spicy. She would not take ‘no’ for an answer. She didn’t allow anyone to just tell her something she didn’t necessarily believe unless she investigated herself,” Runion said.
As for Sheila Mitchell, she’s carrying on her mom’s legacy by keeping the store open in the location and the neighborhood it’s inhabited for years. She said her mom would be remembered as a cornerstone of the community and as someone who walked down the avenue with style.
“She’ll be remembered as the little woman walking down the avenue with the great big hat. That’s how people will remember her,” Sheila Mitchell said.