Civil rights lawyer Melish recalled as tireless advocate for the downtrodden
SOUTH KINGSTOWN – H. Jefferson Melish made a quiet but formidable presence in the state courthouses, with his signature eye patch he earned on the basketball court.
But beneath that quiet exterior lived a tireless advocate for the underprivileged in society, an advocate for civil rights and freedoms.
Family and friends remembered Melish this week, three weeks after he was killed in a car accident on Kingstown Road, Richmond, aged 73. His wife, Joanne, was seriously injured and is recovering at the Vanderbilt Rehabilitation Center in Newport.
“Jeff was a real bourgeois liberal. He was a kind, gentle soul, and he was passionate about justice, ”said Lise Iwon, a longtime friend and colleague.
Melish was born in Brooklyn, NY, to Mary Jane Dietz and Rev. Howard William Melish, an episcopal leader and social justice activist during the McCarthy era.
He graduated from New York University and moved to South Kingstown after teaching at Brooklyn Friends School for a year. He earned a Masters Degree in Education from the University of Rhode Island and taught at the Moses Brown School for a year before teaching at the Peace Dale Elementary School in South Kingstown for eight years.
“He loved being a teacher, but he loved helping people,” said his daughter Tara J. Melish, a human rights attorney and professor at the University of Buffalo School of Law.
It was his zeal for advocacy that led him to graduate from the New England School of Law with a law degree in 1984. Rights and Freedoms.
He accepted dozens of challenges as a volunteer attorney with the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union for nearly three decades. These ranged from representing a mother who was banned from breastfeeding her baby at a local YMCA to adopting Narragansett’s controversial regulation on orange stickers. Last winter, he campaigned successfully for North Kingstown students who were banned from face-to-face tuition during the pandemic after their parents sent them to school while their father waited for COVID test results.
“In the end, he worked on a veritable potpourri of cases for us. … He worked on cases that had a very direct and immediate impact on the lives of the people he represented, “said Steven Brown, executive director of ACLU in Rhode Island.
Brown counted one of Melish’s biggest wins for the ACLU as the legal defeat of a Narragansett ordinance that banned landlords from renting property to more than three people who were not related by blood, marriage, or adoption.
“It was a really important decision,” said Brown. Melish was on the board of directors of the ACLU at the time of his death.
Melish also devoted countless hours to local charities and social organizations. He served on the board of directors of the Jonnycake Center in Peace Dale and South County Community Action. He was a member of the South Kingstown Immigration Task Force and served on the board of Pro-Change Behavior Systems Inc.
“He has been instrumental in starting and supporting so many nonprofits,” said Kate Brewster, CEO of Jonnycake Canter.
She recently said she called Melish about a 13-year-old who was in trouble with the police. Without hesitation, Melish agreed to help the family and escorted them to the police station. Brewster regretted she hadn’t sent a thank you yet.
“He was really just a kind, calm, but powerful soul. This area will miss him for many reasons,” Brewster said.
“Basically, he took care of the weakest and always helped those who had few options. Where there was injustice, he was the person people would turn to, ”said Tara Melish.
That commitment was reflected in his approach to the law, Iwon said.
“He took on cases where people had no money. Jeff tried to help the whole person. He was such a lawyer, ”said Iwon.
It was his calm, humble presence, humility, and episcopal faith that impressed his stepson Matt Johnson, an artist and woodworker in Perryville.
“He would give everyone the benefit of the doubt … He believed that ultimately people were here forever. We all looked up to this quality, ”said Johnson.
“He was a model for me of what faith can do. It really has been there all along,” Johnson continued.
Johnson remembered being in the process of cleaning up Melish’s mother’s brownstone with his mother and was amazed at the pictures of the family with Martin Luther King Jr., playwright Arthur Miller, and Albert Einstein – all stories Johnson still have never heard of. As a teenager, Melish played high school basketball in New York against Lewis Alcindor Jr., widely known as basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“He was a superhero of humility. When you have that much to brag about, but you don’t, ”Johnson said.
The crash, which occurred at 3:45 p.m. on July 1 at 190 Kingstown Rd., Is still under investigation, according to Richmond Police Chief Elwood M. Johnson Jr.
Melish was driving west on Kingstown Road when a pickup truck turned east into the west lane and the Subaru Crosstrek he was driving almost head-on, according to police. Johnson did not identify the driver of the truck but said he has not been charged as the investigation is pending.
“It was a tragic loss. It was terrible. [Melish] was loved by the community, ”said Johnson.
Melish leaves behind five children, Rachel Zinkand, Jennifer Melish, Johnson, Tara Melish and Gabrielle Prochaska, and seven grandchildren.