Attorney Jeff Melish, 73, of Wakefield, R.I., passed away on July 1, 2021, the result of a tragic car collision. Jeff is survived by his wife of forty-two years, Joanne Pope Melish; his two older brothers, John and Bill Melish; his five children, Rachel Zinkand, Jennifer Melish, Matthew Johnson, Tara Melish, and foster daughter Gabrielle Prochaska; and seven beloved grandchildren.
A highly respected civil rights, family law, and disability/children's rights attorney, Jeff was a passionate defender of social justice and civil liberties. An exemplar of self-less, hard-working, people-centered commitment, he believed deeply in social duty to the community and active daily work to protect the dignity and rights of every human being.
These commitments were demonstrated not only in his daily legal practice on behalf of children and families, but in his over 30 years of reliable volunteer service as an ACLU attorney and years on the ACLU of R.I.'s Board of Directors and Executive Board. Jeff believed deeply in the ACLU's rights-based work as a way to structurally improve democratic governance, advocate for a fairer and more inclusive society, and protect the most vulnerable from arbitrary and unreasonable government policies.
Jeff was also there for the day-to-day crises people faced. He served many of the area's non-profits and social service agencies as on-call lawyer to help clients in urgent need of social service supports and legal aid. In addition to the RI ACLU, he long served on the boards of the Johnnycake Center for Hope, South County Community Action, and ProChange Behavior Systems, helping to expand access to safe affordable housing for the poor, adequate food and care for families, and inclusive education systems for all, including different kinds of learners.
Through his church and social commitments, Jeff also supported many other charitable and social justice organizations. He worked with Habitat for Humanity in building low-cost homes, supported children's engagement programs, and was a member of the South Kingstown Immigration Task Force, serving instrumentally in efforts to enact R.I.'s first municipal ordinance protecting immigrants and creating a more welcoming community by limiting the role of local law enforcement in federal immigration activities.
In all these commitments, Jeff drew from his family upbringing. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 13, 1947, Jeff lived until age 11 in the rectory of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, where his grandfather, then father, served as rector. He was the son of the late Rev. William Howard Melish, a progressive proponent of the Social Gospel, and artist and social justice activist Mary Jane Melish. Both his parents were prominent civil rights/peace advocates who helped racially integrate Brooklyn Heights in the 1950s and founded the Soviet-American Friendship Society, a target of Senator Joseph P. McCarthy's anti-Communist campaign. His father was awarded the 1955 International Peace Prize for his work, and his mother's Brooklyn community center is said to have been an inspiration for West Side Story. Ultimately, hysteria around his parents' civil rights and peace activities led to the political ouster of his grandfather from the Holy Trinity Church, leading to the "Melish Controversy," a case which made its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and the New York Court of Appeals twice. In 1952, Playwright Arthur Miller wrote the short story "Father and Son" about the Melish case and the family fight to protect freedom of belief, association, and speech in the McCarthy era.
Jeff was also a committed athlete. He loved basketball and played daily for hours since the age of 5. His talents, competitiveness, and hard work as a boy in Brooklyn led him to play some of basketball's greats, including Kareem Abdul Jabar, and to earn a basketball scholarship to Furman College. Politics, however, soon drew him back to New York. He became a leader of Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen at New York University, and more broadly in the 1960s global youth-led anti-war and international peace movements, for which he traveled widely.
After taking a year and a half off for political organizing, he graduated from New York University in 1971 with a degree in Political Science and History. In 1972, after teaching for a year at the Brooklyn Friends School, he moved to South Kingstown with his first wife, Carole Costanza, with whom he had two daughters. In 1973, he earned an M.A. in Elementary Education from the University of Rhode Island and spent the next eight years teaching second and third grade at Moses Brown and Peace Dale Elementary Schools.
In 1979, Jeff married his soul mate, historian Joanne Pope Melish. Inclusively open to all, Jeff and Joanne's home was a refuge for all those in need of a safe, welcoming, and uncritical place. Jeff received his J.D. in 1984 from the New England School of Law, where he studied at night while working full-time. He practiced law in South Kingstown for 37 years, helping countless families through their difficulties and leaving an indelible mark on his community and all the people he touched, supported, and believed in.
A memorial service will be held August 28 at 2 p.m. at the Church of the Ascension, in Wakefield, RI. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, any donations in memoriam be made to the R.I. ACLU or the Jonnycake Center for Hope in Peace Dale.
Published by Southern Rhode Island Newspapers from Aug. 19 to Aug. 27, 2021.