University of South Alabama turns 60; gets $20M birthday gift

Funds will underwrite new performing arts center

Benefactor Abe Mitchell and University President Jo Bonner at the university’s 60th birthday event. Photo by Mike Kittrell.

The University of South Alabama received a special birthday present Friday — $20 million to underwrite construction of a new performing arts center on the Mobile campus.

Abraham “Abe” Mitchell, a long-time supporter of the university, was honored for the donation by University President Jo Bonner during the school’s 60th anniversary celebration today.

Today’s gift adds to Mitchell’s legacy on the campus, bringing his total donations to the university to some $120 million over the years. The College of Business, campus event center, cancer center and more are named in honor of earlier gifts from him and his brother, Mayer, who built their Mitchell Company into one of the largest real estate firms in the region.

“It gives me great happiness to see the impact that my support — and that of my family — has brought to the University of South Alabama,” Mitchell said. “The impact it has had on our students, on their ability to attend and graduate from college, and their ability to pursue their dreams and establish dreams for their future generations.”

South plans to keep using its current performing arts center, the Laidlaw Center, and complement it with the new facility.

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“World-class cities feature world class event venues,” said Jo Bonner, University of South Alabama president. “Mr. Mitchell’s generosity allows us to take the next big step toward advancing the arts both on campus and throughout the region.” 

The ceremony today is the beginning of a year-long anniversary celebration.

Before 1963, Mobile had only an extension program housed in a downtown building, but civic leaders worked to win state approval for a four-year university.

The legislature approved plans for a new, independent university on May 3, 1963.

“Classes began in June 1964 at a new, $1 million building in west Mobile with an initial enrollment of 276,” the university said in announcing the celebration. “The extent of the pent-up demand for education became obvious when the first fall semester began, enrollment leaped to 928 — and it continues to grow.

“Today, South enrolls more than 13,500 students annually and has awarded more than 92,000 degrees.”

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