At inner city YMCA, Miss. mayor was ‘just Frank’

Published 3:31 am Sunday, May 10, 2009

At the inner city YMCA, he was just Frank.

Many remembered Jackson Mayor Frank Melton this week for his dedication to the community, not his time in the spotlight or the courtroom. Melton died early Thursday at age 60, just days before he was to be tried a second time on civil rights charges.

“He did too much good for it to be overshadowed,” said Farish Street YMCA CEO David Reeves.

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Melton first volunteered at the “Y” when he moved to Jackson from Tyler, Texas, in the 1980s to take over WLBT-TV. Melton said he didn’t intend to make Mississippi his permanent home, but he fell in love with the place and the people.

There were times when he spent every day of the summer at the YMCA, mentoring a group of kids who lack positive male influences and teaching them to swim, said Jara Miller, a vice president there.

“He always came here with a smile and he always stayed here longer than he planned,” she said. “He was just Frank.”

Inside the YMCA on the day Melton died, a group of 3-year-old children dashed around the gym, bouncing balls and riding a tricycle. Older kids prepared for a “graduation ceremony.” Laughter filled the place.

Outside, a group of young men were hanging out on a nearby corner. An older man, apparently intoxicated, stumbled down the street. In this part of downtown, with shuttered buildings and dilapidated homes, it’s not hard to see why the YMCA is needed.

“Frank cared about kids. He cared about the future of kids,” Miller said.

Just across town, there’s a busted-up duplex that federal prosecutors say Melton destroyed in a vigilante raid in 2006. He was scheduled to stand trial Monday for damaging the home, which Melton said was a crack house.

When Melton first came to Jackson in the 1980s, he asked WLBT reporter Dennis Smith to research Buford Pusser, the legendary Tennessee sheriff who battled the Dixie Mafia and inspired the film “Walking Tall.” Two decades later, witnesses of the duplex attack said Melton carried a “Walking Tall” stick.

“He looked at Buford Pusser as some sort of hero or icon,” said Smith, who is now the station’s news director. “Sometimes things come full circle.”

Melton said he was only trying to rid the city of a drug den when he led a group of young men to use sticks and sledgehammers to damage the home, but the high-profile attack came to define his tumultuous term as mayor. It does not define him as a man, Reeves said.

“He was all about trying to get kids off the streets,” Reeves said. “I think that’s what his legacy will be.”

Melton said a YMCA near his childhood home in Houston, Texas, put him on the right path. When he decided to give back, his contributions were immeasurable, Reeves said.

Melton helped shut down a liquor store next to the YMCA. It is now a teen center. On the opposite side of the original building, an after-school program is set up in an old store. Melton paid the rent for several years as the YMCA raised money take over the payments, Reeves said.

He also took many of the children into his home in an upscale neighborhood, which seems like worlds away. Melton has said he unofficially adopted more than 70 youngsters over the years.

“He was a huge part of this place,” Reeves said.

Melton also took his message of responsibility and hard work to schools around the state, and in the 1980s worked to break up gang activity. He became Jackson’s most recognizable personality with his commentary, “The Bottom Line,” on WLBT. He was elected mayor in 2005 on a promise to stamp out crime, but he soon ran into trouble with the law himself.

Melton and his former police bodyguard faced two felony charges in the trial that had been scheduled to begin Monday. They were acquitted in April 2007 on state charges related to the raid, but federal prosecutors soon filed charges.

A federal trial ended in February when the jury couldn’t reach a verdict. Prosecutors decided to try him again, but won’t get their chance.

Melton collapsed just minutes after polls closed Tuesday and never recovered. Most likely, he never knew he lost the election, an aide said.

Melton’s body will lie in repose at City Hall on Monday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The memorial service is Tuesday at noon. Melton will be buried in Pearland, Texas, near Houston.