RICHMOND – H. Jefferson Melish, a longtime attorney of Wakefield, died Thursday, July 1 in a motor vehicle crash in Richmond. He was 73.
According to police, the operator of a pickup truck traveling east on Kingstown Road near Richmond Elementary School lost control of the vehicle and traveled into the westbound lane, striking Melish’s vehicle “nearly head-on.” Melish’s wife of 42 years, Joanne Melish, was also seriously injured in the collision and transported to Rhode Island Hospital by airlift. The crash is still under investigation.
Melish, who taught elementary school prior to becoming an attorney, was known around the community for taking on cases with a civil and social justice component. He volunteered with the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (RIACLU) for three decades.
“Jeff was one of our most consistently active volunteer attorneys,” said Steven Brown, RIACLU Executive Director. “He also served on our Board of Directors for many years, including at the time of his death.”
The cases Melish volunteered to assist with at the RIACLU covered a “wide range” of topics, said Brown, and included student rights, civil liberties issues in family court and employment discrimination matters.
“He had a very quiet demeanor, but he was passionate about civil rights and civil liberties and took on cases with a vigorous commitment to fairness,” said Brown. “The clients that he represented in an ACLU capacity were always grateful for his dedication to their cause.”
Along that line, friends and colleagues, when discussing Melish, spoke to the late attorney’s efforts, that often expanded beyond the courtroom, to help clients.
“[Melish] represented a lot of people who really had nothing,” said Lise Iwon, a fellow attorney and friend. “He would take cases other people wouldn’t take because the clients didn’t have any money. He always treated his clients with respect and dignity. He was a do-gooder.”
“When you represent people in family or district court, they usually don’t have just one problem, they have a million problems,” Iwon continued. “Jeff was one of those kind of lawyers who knew about all the various public benefits programs and knew how to refer people to getting housing assistance, substance abuse help, all kinds of programs. He’d help the whole person - not just the specific legal problem that he was dealing with that day. That is very unusual.”
Iwon noted Melish often represented clients with mental health issues, histories of substance abuse and those with special needs.
“My dad was the most self-less, hard-working, people-centered, and committed man I know,” said daughter Tara J. Melish, a human rights attorney and professor at SUNY Buffalo School of Law. “He came from a Brooklyn-based family of progressive advocates in which social duty to the community and active daily work to protect the dignity and rights of every human being was the highest calling, and my dad exemplified those moral principles and social commitments more genuinely, humbly, quietly, and generously in his day-to-day life than anyone else.”
His daughter emphasizes that, growing up, the Melish house was a refuge for any person in need of a safe, uncritical place.
“My dad believed in every person,” Tara said. “He knew that life can be hard and unfair, especially to the poorest and least advantaged. His job, as he saw it, was to help alleviate and uproot that unfairness.”
“He saw himself first and foremost as a social worker and community justice advocate” she continued, “helping people to solve the everyday problems and injustices they faced.”
A life-time member of the Episcopal Church, Melish was deeply faith-based.
“He never just recited his faith, however,” his daughter says. “He lived it.”
Emphasizing his tremendous impact on the community, she states, “thankfully, his legacy lives on in all the people whose lives he touched, and in all of us inspired by his daily example to continue his quiet, tireless work for others and a better world.”
Melish opened his practice on Main Street in Wakefield in 1984. On Monday night, the South Kingstown Town Council acknowledged the passing of Melish, with town council president Abel Collins noting he “fought for a lot of social justice causes.”
“We will miss his presence here in the council chambers, advocating for great causes,” Collins said. “Our thoughts are with his wife.”
Melish leaves behind five children, Rachel Zinkand, Jennifer Melish, Matthew Johnson, Tara Melish, and Gabrielle Prochaska, and seven beloved grandchildren.