Patricia Melton started running — under the tutelage of the late Lee Calhoun, a two-time Olympic gold medalist — when she first landed at Yale in 1977. Thirty years later, she has yet to slow down.
Her drive — which has resulted in a prestigious NCAA Silver Anniversary Award, one of six awarded nationally this year — has taken her all over the country, working to provide innovative educational opportunities to young urban children, those with whom she shares a history. Those for whom she can steer toward success.
“I really, really enjoy working with urban students,” she said in an interview for the Ivy League’s Black History Month celebration a few years ago. “Students who are the first to go to college in their family and where financial aid is a huge issue.”
Melton’s affinity for those types of students began back in Cleveland, Ohio, when she was a child. Sporting opportunities for girls may have been in their infancy around the nation, but any notion of such had yet to come to inner-city Cleveland. At a school where funding for books and teachers were limited, broad-based athletics simply did not exist.
“Where I had gone to school in Cleveland, I had never seen a field hockey or lacrosse stick,” she remembered. The educational options were limiting as well.
Then came A Better Chance Scholarship that changed the course of her life. She wound up at Middlesex Prep School in Concord, Mass., for her sophomore year and all students were required to participate in athletics as a component of the school’s strong academic regimen.
Suddenly she was hauling around a lacrosse stick, even toting it back to Cleveland during a break from school. “I just decided that I was going to learn this game,” she said. “When I got home, I didn’t know how to cradle the ball or anything. But all I did the entire time was practice with the ball and the lacrosse stick. By the time I went back, I had gotten it.”
Combining her new-found skill with her speed and tenacity, Coach Dale Walker discovered that she had an all-star. Yale and Brown universities discovered her as well. Both schools recruited her heavily and she opted to continue her education in New Haven.
Athletically, her field hockey coach had her change positions and stuck her in goal, a position with which she was not all at familiar. Not only were the skills she had honed rendered useless, she couldn’t rely on her best attribute, her open-field speed. So she turned to track and field.
This time it was Calhoun who found out that he had an all-star. Under his guidance, she flourished, taking second in the 100-meter dash at the League Championship as a freshman. But over the next two years, she would be in-and-out at Yale because of family tragedy back in Cleveland. Orphaned at 12, she had lost her brother to violence on the first day of classes.
Melton opted to enlist into the Marine Corps before returning to Yale.
“I thought it would help me to develop discipline. It was actually one of the hardest things I have ever done. They really break you down … Yet, it was an experience that made me stronger.”
And when she returned to Yale for the start of her junior year, she brought her strength, resilience and determination back to the track and new coach Mark Young. And over her last two seasons she would win six individual League titles, earn the Outstanding Performer of the Meet at the Heptagonal Championships and break school and League records. She still holds marks in both the 400-meter dash and the 400-meter hurdles at Yale.
If that wasn’t enough, she also took second place nationally in the hurdles at the NCAA Championships predecessor — the AIAW. Her success and commitment to her sport made her a natural choice for Yale’s top athletic prize — the Nellie Elliot Outstanding Senior Athlete Award. She graduated in 1982 with a degree in Afro-American Studies.
Another of Young’s athletes, Joslyn Woodard, recently graduated with an incredible 20 individual League titles and he found something in her focus that he had not seen since Melton.
“It is one thing to be great and there are a lot of great athletes in this League,” said Young. “But to be great and consistent is something entirely different. Pat was so focused, you couldn’t talk to her two days before and two days after a big meet. You’d get on the bus and say, ‘Pat, how you doing?’ She’d just nod. And she came up big every time.”
Yet her greatest accomplishment was still to come. Melton became a professional athlete — although ‘professional’ had little to do with financially viability. She struggled at times to find the funds to compete at national events and switched her event to the 800-meter run because hurdling took more training resources. Coaching herself in an unfamiliar event and running a limited schedule, Melton made the finals of the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis in 1988.
“People were like, ‘Who is she?’ They had not seen me compete because I didn’t run a lot of races. And I looked around at the people in the race and I said, ‘They’re still in college, this one has a husband supporting her.’ I was really the only one out there just kind of struggling along. I think what I accomplished was really incredible.”
Upon retirement, she landed a job with the Goodwill Games, but she discovered that she truly enjoyed working in education, especially with children in circumstances like her own.
“I’ve decided that the place for me is K-12 education, in particular charter schools. Now I am very clear about what I want to do. I want to start charter schools in urban areas all over the country.”
And she has certainly been all over the country, trying to make an impact in communities through education, currently as the lead school design consultant and early college high school expert for the Center of Excellence in Leadership and Learning (CELL) at the University of Indianapolis.
“I am so proud that the NCAA is honoring Pat,” said Young. “I had a teammate (Kwaku Ohene-Frempong) who won this award and he is the nation’s leading researcher in finding a cure for sickle-cell anemia. Pat’s story isn’t like that, but she simply overcame every obstacle that got in her way and now works to help kids do the same. She is a great, great story.”
This story was written by Brett Hoover in 2006 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.