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Carnegie commission honors Wilkes Co. judge who died while trying to rescue swimmers

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Chief District Court Judge Mitchell McLean, 54, of Wilkesboro, drowned off Sunset Beach on July 3, 2013 while attempting to help a couple who were struggling in the surf. The man McLean was trying to help survived, but McLean and the woman he was also trying to help died. (Bruce Chapman/Journal)

WILKESBORO, N.C. — Jay Vannoy and a few friends planned Thursday to sneak in a quick nine holes, and if their timing was just right, hoist a drink as the evening gathered to toast a buddy who wouldn’t be there, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

It was a year to the day that his friend — more like an older brother, really — Mitch McLean, the chief district court judge for Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany and Yadkin County drowned at Sunset Beach while trying to save total strangers from a rip current.

To mark McLean’s extraordinary sacrifice and celebrate his life, his friends released balloons outside the Wilkes County Courthouse about 4 p.m., the time of day when authorities said he charged into the ocean to attempt to help swimmers in obvious distress.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been a year already,” Vannoy said. “Mitch used to like to watch the sun go down on the ninth green so that’s what we’re going to do today.”

Setting fear aside

The most remarkable aspect of McLean’s last few minutes was the fact that he went into the surf despite harboring a lifelong fear of the water.

But several people among the hundreds gathered along the beach that day were being swept out to sea as a series of rip currents appeared. There were no lifeguards on duty and no warning flags; the lazy promise of a long Fourth of July weekend crumbled into pandemonium.

“I’ve thought about that quite a bit since I heard, just trying to imagine what he encountered on the beach,” said Walter Holton, a close friend since their days at the Wake Forest School of Law in the early 1980s, soon after he heard the news. “You see somebody in trouble, and there’s no lifeguard … you either run for help or go in to help.

“I’m sure for Mitch, it was no choice at all. The only choice he felt he had.”

The swimmer McLean went in after, a woman from Waxhaw, died but her husband survived.

In recognition of that act, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission awarded McLean the Carnegie Medal, which is given annual to individuals in the United States and Canada “who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others.”

The citation sums it up this way:

“Mitchell L. McLean died after attempting to save Maryanne Galway and others from drowning, Sunset Beach, North Carolina, July 3, 2013. While swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, Galway, 55 and several others were caught by a strong rip current that took them farther from shore. Her husband supported her as he shouted for help. In another party, McLean, 54, chief district court judge, had just arrived at the beach. He and his wife joined others in entering the surf in rescue attempts, but his wife returned to shore after struggling against the high waves. Galway was returned to the beach by one of the rescuers as others retrieved her husband and McLean, who had been overcome by the conditions. Unconscious, all three were taken to the hospital, where Galway and McLean were pronounced dead. Galway’s husband recovered.”

Fitting honor

As they prepared to celebrate McLean’s life, Vannoy and the others were not aware that their friend had been so honored.

The Carnegie Medal is a pretty big deal, having been established by industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1904. Some 9,697 individuals have been honored by the committee since its inception, and the medal comes with a financial award that can take the form of scholarships or death benefits.

That benefit is nice, of course, but the fact that others outside McLean’s immediate circle recognized his extraordinary bravery meant more to his friends.

“I didn’t know that, but I’m very pleased to hear it,” Vannoy said. “I don’t know quite how to say it, but it’s a very fitting tribute to him.”

“For a guy who hated water and was terrified of it to have gone in anyway and done that, he earned it. I’m pleased for his family. It’s a great honor to him and the sacrifice he made. It’s a great way to give tribute for everything Mitch stood for in his whole life.”

The friends who gathered on the ninth green Thursday knew that their friend was a kind and compassionate soul. Now the rest of the country does, too.

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