When state Rep. Roberta Willis first met Frank Melville about 20 years ago, he was working as a volunteer cook at a Winsted soup kitchen.
Melville, of Norfolk, didn't look like a rich, important man, remembers Willis of Salisbury. And that was how he wanted it, friends say. The reserved, but passionate philanthropist, whose family trust has pumped millions of dollars into helping the state's homeless, died Wednesday. He was 84.
"He was one of the most modest persons I ever worked with, a thoughtful and generous spirit who really wanted the work to speak for itself," said Robert Hohler, executive director of the Melville Charitable Trust. "He never, ever sought attention — really avoided it.
"When you think about the people who give money and want their names all over a building and you see a guy like Frank Melville who put his money where his heart is, that's the real meaning of philanthropy," Hohler said.
Since 1990, the family trust has been focused on long-term solutions to homelessness in Connecticut. The work has included advocacy for the state's mentally ill, promotion of affordable housing and boosting the economies of struggling neighborhoods. Agencies the trust has funded include The Partnership for Strong Communities, which works to raise awareness and find solutions to chronic homelessness. Based at the Lyceum on Lawrence Street in Hartford, the Partnership is part of the Melville Trust's ongoing investment in the Frog Hollow neighborhood, Hohler said.
The trust was launched with about $60 million, money that came from the Melville family's success in retail businesses, which have included Thom McAn shoe stores, Marshall's clothing stores and CVS, the pharmacy giant. Today, the trust has about $160 million and has distributed about $80 million to various agencies, mostly in Connecticut, Hohler said.
Frank Melville, whom Hohler described as "the guiding force" behind the trust's focus on homelessness, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. He attended the private Pomfret School in Pomfret and Princeton University before joining the Navy in World War II. He had a long career in book publishing and became president of the History Book Club, a mail order business.
"He served as a trustee of The Pomfret School and Sarah Lawrence College, and was throughout his life a strong supporter of liberal causes and organizations, particularly the American Civil Liberties Union," an obituary said.
After retiring from publishing, he dedicated much of his life to the trust. He and other board members chose homelessness as a focus "because they felt in 1990 that it didn't get much attention from philanthropy," Hohler said.
John Gibb of Darien, a longtime friend of Melville's and one of the trust's original board members, said members decided to focus on the problem in Connecticut.
"We figured New York was just too big for us and we would just be lost in the shuffle," said Gibb, 85.
The board's philosophy from the beginning has been to find long-term, sustainable solutions — to not only get people off the streets, but to move them toward self-reliance, both Gibb and Hohler said.
"The objective is to vault over the circular approach, the revolving door of food banks and shelters treating homelessness on a night-by-night basis to a more sophisticated approach," Hohler said.
Although he was a quiet man who kept out of the spotlight, Melville was passionate about the trust's work and other issues. He had served several yeas ago on a special state commission on mental health under then-Gov. John Rowland. His passion on that issue comes through in a letter he wrote to The Courant in 2000 after learning that state funding for mental health services might be cut.
"I hope The Courant will give Mr. Rowland an opportunity to deny the report, because it is in no way consonant with the recommendations of the commission," Melville wrote. "If true, it is a slap in the face to all of the talented people who made time on their busy schedules to respond to what we took to be an honest and serious charge — to examine the state's mental health system and propose improvements."
In an e-mail to friends and associates of Melville, Hohler described him as "an exceptional human being — deeply thoughtful, generous and possessed with a lifelong commitment to civil liberties and equitable justice."
Melville had a form of dementia and had been living at Noble Horizons, a residential and nursing facility for the elderly in Salisbury. He is survived by his wife, Allen, , a brother, David, sons Stephen, Lanning, Gregory and Cameron, and three grandchildren. Two sisters died previously.
The funeral will be private. Contributions may be made to the Association for Frontotemporal Dementias, 100 N. 17th St., Suite 600, Philadelphia, PA 19103; or Noble Horizons, 17 Cobble Road, Salisbury, CT 06068.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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