Melton remembered for life of service to Macon

pramati@macon.comMarch 8, 2014 

At the memorial service Saturday for Buckner “Buck” Melton Sr., many of those who filled St. Paul’s Episcopal Church said the smaller, unheralded contributions he made to the city mattered as much as his accomplishments as a former Macon mayor and well-known attorney.

Carolyn Crayton, co-founder of the Cherry Blossom Festival, noted the free legal advice Melton gave in the festival’s formative years, as well as his help in the founding of Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful.

Former Macon City Councilman Henry Ficklin said it was Melton who prevented the razing of the historic Douglass Theatre.

State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, remembered a time when Melton figured out a way for the city to accept state funds Lucas had secured to repair the pool at the Boys and Girls Club.

“Buck said, ‘You get the money, and I’ll make sure it’s used for the (repairs),’” Lucas said, adding that only the city could accept the funds, not the center itself. “He had one-quarter of an inch (of the center) donated to the city.”

Of course, Melton’s more well-known accomplishments also were celebrated Saturday. After serving as the city attorney under former Mayor Ed Wilson during the 1960s, Melton ran successfully for mayor in 1975, serving one term in the position before deciding not to run again in 1979.

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert pointed out that it was Melton who instituted the city’s local option sales tax, which is still used today to take some of the burden off ad valorem taxes.

Mercer University Chancellor Kirby Godsey, who gave the homily at Saturday’s service, noted that Melton “almost single-handedly shepherded the economic renaissance of the 1970s,” and was a key figure in bringing large businesses such as YKK, Brown & Williamson and Geico to Macon.

Godsey said Melton’s greatest legacy was to put forth the $7 million bond proposal to build Mercer’s School of Medicine. Godsey described how Melton risked his political standing trying to get voters to approve the measure.

“The simple truth is that the school of medicine would not have happened without him believing it should happen,” Godsey said, adding later, “He began the progressive leadership that is embodied today.”

Counsel sought out

Reichert and two other former mayors -- Lee Robinson and C. Jack Ellis -- who attended Saturday’s service said Melton was always available to them to offer advice, but never tried to impose his beliefs on them.

“He was so kind and such fun to be around,” Reichert said. “After I was first elected mayor, he and I had some pleasant conversations, and I’m the better for it. Macon lost a great leader. He will be missed.”

Robinson said he sought out Melton’s advice fairly regularly.

“He was my confidante,” Robinson said. “He was instrumental for me becoming mayor. If you haven’t walked in (a mayor’s shoes), it’s hard to relate. But when you have someone who has, he was invaluable to me.”

Melton ran for the mayor’s office unsuccessfully in 1999, losing in the Democratic primary to Ellis. Ellis remembered both sides running a clean campaign, and he said Melton was gracious enough to offer some ideas about consolidation after Ellis took office. He also advised Ellis to make sure then newly appointed Police Chief Rodney Monroe met with all segments of the community.

“I had a great deal of respect for what (Melton) did for this city,” Ellis said.

Ellis said Melton was respected in both the black and white communities in Macon, and noted Melton was a key figure in the fight against Baconsfield Park being open to white residents only, which was one of the terms in the contract when the land was donated to the city.

During Melton’s time as mayor, the city government underwent a transformation when City Council expanded to 15 members to include members elected in their own wards to join those elected at-large. Gene Dunwody Sr., who was president of the council during that time, said Melton managed to bring a lot of diverse voices together.

“It was a time of transition,” Dunwody said. “He was a superior leader who could bring unity to the diverse membership of the council. From time to time, we had our differences, but he always forged a unified approach. That’s what made him such a good leader and mayor.”

Loyalty to law firm

Melton graduated Mercer’s law school and became a well-known attorney in Macon. He was a founding partner of the firm McKen­na, House, Lancaster & Green, but took his name off the practice when he became mayor.

Ed Sell, his partner in the firm of Sell & Melton, said Melton always wanted to work with attorney John Comer, a partner in the firm of Sell, Comer & Popper.

“He wanted to practice with John, but he didn’t want to leave his old firm,” Sell said. “So we put the two firms together. That’s how loyal he was.”

Sell said Melton stayed involved with the firm even after he retired, coming in every Friday to meet with the firm’s attorney’s until he suffered a stroke in 2007.

“He was totally devoted to the law practice,” Sell said. “Just before he retired, he had a problem with a client’s case. He was not going to retire until that problem was solved. ... I’ve never known anybody who cared so much with whatever he was involved in. He was a great trial lawyer.”

Godsey said Melton was very forward-thinking when it came to Macon’s development, being a staunch advocate of consolidation with Bibb County and making the city the economic hub of the Middle Georgia region. Godsey said Melton was able to see beyond race and partisanship. “He embodied the capacity to live beyond himself,” Godsey said to those in attendance. “For Buck, every person mattered.”

Wearing many hats

Melton was buried Saturday at Rose Hill Cemetery with full military honors. Melton served in the Navy during World War II as an amphibious warfare officer in the Pacific theater. He was later recalled to active duty during the Korean War. He retired from the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1983 as a lieutenant commander.

Melton served Macon in many capacities beyond being mayor. He served as president of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce in 1971 and president of the Macon Bar Association in 1973. He served on many boards, including the Georgia Board of Industry and Trade, the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority, the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority, the Macon Civic Club, the Macon Legal Aid Society, the Macon State College Foundation and Mercer’s school of medicine.

In 1982, he ran unsuccessfully to become Georgia’s governor, losing out to eventual winner Joe Frank Harris.

Melton, the youngest son of a Moultrie Baptist minister, is survived by his wife of 60 years, Tommie Melton, his children, Leigh Singleton of Nashville, Tenn., and Buckner F. Melton Jr. of Macon, and a grandson.

At the funeral Saturday, Melton’s son said he and his family were grateful for the community’s support.

“He was a great role model,” the younger Melton said. “It cost him a lot to be mayor. He set the standard for all of us. He showed us it was our job to give something back. ... He was every bit as good a father as he was a public servant.”

The younger Melton said his father’s legacy couldn’t be boiled down to one thing.

“If you want to see his monument, look all around Macon,” he said. “It wasn’t just him, but the generation that worked with him.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

The Telegraph is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service