Buck Melton Sr. had hoped to live to 100 so he could celebrate during Macon’s 200th anniversary.
He fell 10 years short of his goal. Melton died late Wednesday at the age of 90.
“He slept his way on through, no pain or anything,” said his son, Buck Melton Jr.
The former Macon mayor’s health declined rapidly following heart complications in January. He died in the skilled nursing facility at Carlyle Place with his daughter at his side, the younger Melton said.
“He was a very generous and selfless public servant in the classical sense,” Melton said. “He was always looking to bring people together, always looking for solutions.”
Working as an attorney in his adopted hometown, Melton defeated Macon’s first black mayoral candidate, Julius C. Hope, to serve as mayor from 1975 to 1979. The Democrat’s term was sandwiched between the city’s first Republican leaders -- Ronnie Thompson and George Israel.
“I was probably his biggest critic on City Council,” said Israel, who was elected the same year as Melton. “I spent my eight years (as mayor) apologizing to him for not understanding.”
Macon’s advancements under Israel might not have happened, he said, if Melton had not laid the foundation.
“He had a vision for the city and changed a lot of things,” Israel said. “Already with his illness, there’s been an absence in leadership in the community.”
As Melton looked back on his mayoral tenure with The Telegraph in 2007, he was proud of the 70 miles of streets paved. He remembered rolling out “Buck’s Buckets,” the city’s first rollaway garbage carts for the launch of curbside pickup.
“Had a ball,” he said of his time as mayor. “I enjoyed it thoroughly.”
He also is credited with pushing major spending initiatives, including adding an extra penny tax on the dollar to reduce property taxes and issuing bonds to help establish the Mercer University School of Medicine.
The former naval officer who served in World War II and the Korean War graduated from Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law.
“Mercer probably wouldn’t have a medical school if it weren’t for Buck Melton,” said R. Kirby Godsey, Mercer University’s chancellor.
The two became fast friends when the future Mercer president moved to Macon in 1977 to serve as the university’s dean of the College of Liberal Arts.
Godsey said Melton’s impact “will never end in this community.
“He, in many ways, shaped the modern era in Macon. He set it on a progressive course when he served as mayor.”
‘Macon’s finest hour’
In Melton’s own reflections, he credited his effectiveness to his legal experience and stint as city attorney under Mayor Ed Wilson.
Andrew Manis, a Middle Georgia State University assistant professor of history, said Melton was key to the Wilson administration’s move to abolish segregation ordinances.
“In some ways, Buck Melton was Macon’s finest hour when it comes to race relations,” said Manis, a historian of the civil rights movement.
Melton also campaigned for Wilson in the black community, Manis said.
“Black leadership developed a quiet confidence in Buck Melton as a person,” he said.
Billy Randall, Bibb County’s chief magistrate, said the 6-foot-tall lawyer was a great friend and mentor.
“Buck was a mover and a shaker. Anything of substance that was good for this city, he had a hand in it,” Randall said. “He should go down as a great statesman for the city of Macon.”
Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Ed DeFore served on the Macon City Council while Melton was mayor.
When politics got heated, Melton stayed cool.
“He never did jump in,” DeFore said. “He smiled and he never would fuss back at them.”
The leader with a penchant for cigars was not a politician, DeFore said, but a statesman who drew respect from elected officials across Georgia.
He was instrumental in founding the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission in 1974, Carolyn Crayton said.
Melton did all the legal work for the fledgling organization, but he never took a dime.
“He’d say, ‘Now, Carolyn, I can’t keep doing this,’” she remembered, but he kept helping. “Any legal questions, he was the only one I’d go to.”
As an avid golfer, Melton lured Crayton to take over running the Gen. Robert L. Scott benefit golf tournament he helped launch.
“I am so, so sad one of my best friends is gone,” said Crayton, who befriended Melton when she and her husband, Lee, moved to Macon 43 years ago. “I love Buck Melton and am going to miss him. He’s a great man.”
True ‘Southern gentleman’
After leaving the mayor’s office, Melton returned to practicing law and co-founded the Sell & Melton law firm.
The new practice merged his old firm -- McKenna, House, Lancaster & Green -- with the firm of Sell, Comer & Popper.
His colleagues remember his perpetual pleasantness and good nature.
Former Sell & Melton employee Lisa McKinley Cady posted this on The Telegraph’s Facebook page:
“This man was the true definition of a Southern gentleman. He always had a smile on his face and always looked to find the good in everyone.”
R. Chix Miller, the firm’s managing partner, knew Melton for 38 years.
“He was great with people,” Miller said. “He was a people person to the end. He loved people, all different sizes and shapes and colors and diversities.”
Melton was a master storyteller and would break out into song at parties, often crooning “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” Miller said.
In an internal memo sent Thursday morning, Miller lauded Melton’s “unremitting accomplishment, optimism, cheerfulness, humor and can-do spirit matched by very, very few on earth.”
Melton did not initially seek a second term in the mayor’s office, which at the time paid $30,000 a year with no retirement plan nor health or life insurance.
“He had a family to support,” Miller said.
Miller believes a lack of campaign funds cost Melton the Georgia governor’s race in 1982. The Atlanta Constitution newspaper was among the media outlets that praised Melton’s qualifications for the job, he recalled.
Melton took one more crack at the mayor’s office in 1999, challenging C. Jack Ellis in the Democratic primary.
Ellis won and went on to become the city’s first black mayor.
“I thought he was a kind man who did good work for the city,” Ellis said.
What the former mayor remembers most about his predecessor and former political opponent was Melton’s love for Macon.
“I remember him sharing with me that he fell in love with it and never left,” Ellis said.
Melton was the youngest child of a south Georgia Baptist minister and a church organist.
Born and raised in Arlington, he climbed in the family Ford at age 6 for his first trip to the “great sprawling city” of Macon.
In the foreward to Nancy Anderson’s “Macon, A Pictorial History,” he wrote:
“We passed the spires of Mercer which seemed to reach into the low-flying clouds. The massive columned mansions on College Street, the beautiful parks, and the metropolitan bustle of Cherry Street seemed awesome.”
He would return for college and later fell for a beautiful blonde, Tommie Beck, whom he first saw in the audience of a Macon Little Theatre performance.
The couple married in 1954 and wold have marked their 60th anniversary in October.
They were active in the Macon Civic Club and often took to the stage in the annual charity review.
Former Mayor Lee Robinson said he admired Melton immensely.
“We shared a passionate love for this little spot on Earth we call Macon, Georgia,” Robinson said.
Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert said Melton was a wonderful man.
“He was a great asset to this community in several different ways -- as a lawyer, as a mayor, as a community champion,” Reichert said. “He leaves a wonderful legacy behind.”
Melton, who was a strong proponent of consolidation, remained active in community affairs until he suffered a stroke in April 2007.
Melton found the bright side of the health crisis that nearly took his life.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” Melton said months later. “I’ve had so many friends come see me, call me, write me.”
Three years before the stroke, Melton penned his memoir, “Closing Arguments.”
On the back cover, former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn wrote: “Buck is an unsung hero of Middle Georgia’s prosperity and growth.”
Nunn ventured that Melton “had a hand in the most successful and significant undertakings” in Middle Georgia over the last 30 years.
Summer 2009 marked the dedication of the $6 million Buck Melton Community Center, a Macon Housing Authority renovation of the old McKenna National Guard Armory.
At the time, Godsey said he couldn’t think of a better namesake for community center.
“Buck was a distinguished visionary who was willing to live beyond the narrow confines of his surroundings,” Godsey said at the ceremony.
Melton, who attended the dedication with his wife, was on the verge of tears as he came to the podium to speak. “This building is a shining star,” Melton said after the dedication. “This community’s going to be a whole new world because of this.”
At a national legal conference in 1960, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley Sr. introduced Melton to Robert F. Kennedy, who then introduced Melton to his brother John F. Kennedy.
In trying to describe his father, Melton Jr. thought of the words of RFK: “There are those who look at things the way they are and ask why. ... I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”
The younger Melton said: “That sort of describes his kind of public service.”
Hart’s at the Cupola will host visitation Friday from 4-6 p.m. Melton’s funeral will be Saturday at 11:30 a.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at the corner of College and Forsyth streets. Burial with full military honors will follow at Rose Hill Cemetery.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.