Emory Melton through the years: 1974, 1957, 1966 and 2015
CASSVILLE – Everyone has a story to tell, but Emory Melton’s would fill several volumes. Yet while he could put such a story in book form — after all, he owns a printing company — he might not have time to tell it. Because even at 92 years old, Emory still has a waiting room full of clients seeking his counsel.
Those people know Emory has spent many years — nearly 70, in fact — as a lawyer. They likely know he is one of Barry County’s premiere historians, and that he’s been a local newspaperman for decades. They might remember using their vote to help put him in the Missouri Senate.
However, there’s one thing they probably don’t know: Emory’s impressive career stemmed from a childhood wish to be like his dad.
In the beginning
In 1930, Emory Melton was a 7-year-old boy living in McDowell, Mo., a village located around eight miles east of Purdy. In those days, his father served on the county commission and was elected as its presiding judge.
Seeing his dad in that role convinced Emory that politics was the path for him as well — but while that goal remained constant, it was slightly modified by an encounter with E.N. Meador, publisher of the Cassville Republican.
“I was with my dad, and he was talking to Mr. Meador in the courthouse over here,” booms Emory in trademark voice. “And as was the custom in those days, Mr. Meador was paying some attention to me. And he said, ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ And I said, ‘A politician.’
He said, ‘Lawyers usually are politicians.’ So I said, ‘Fine, I’ll be a lawyer.’
He said, ‘Lawyers usually are politicians.’ So I said, ‘Fine, I’ll be a lawyer.’
“Well, he said, ‘There’s not much in that. What you need is an occupation.’ He said, ‘Lawyers usually are politicians.’ So I said, ‘Fine, I’ll be a lawyer.’
That was all it took.
“And that’s what set me on that course,” says Emory. “Little did he know that that would happen, but that stayed in my mind all these years.”
Learning the law
While law school may have seemed like a world away from Barry County in those days, Emory had an even bigger hurdle to cross first. “My father, who had a third-grade education, was not all that thrilled about me going to high school,” says Emory, noting that none of his family had been educated past the first few grades.
Emory, however, won his first case by convincing his father to let him attend classes. His desire for an education was so great that he trekked 2.5 miles — each way — in rain, snow and shine to catch a bus to Purdy. After two years, he transferred to the Verona district after they purchased an old St. Louis City Transit bus to transport students to and from school. “And it came right by the house,” says Emory. “All I had to do was get on it and go. So I did that for two years. ‘Course, I never got to attend any school events or anything. But I gradated from Verona in 19 and 40.”
Emory next spent time at Monett Junior College and Southwest Missouri State Teachers College to accrue the required credits to attend the University of Missouri School of Law. It took a lot of hard work, expressed through summers spent in the Kansas wheat harvest and owning a paper route for the Springfield Daily News, but Emory put himself through law school. He graduated in 1946 — and promptly went into the Army.
But being overseas didn’t stop Emory from finding a new job at home in Barry County. “I was elected prosecuting attorney when I was still overseas at the end of World War II,” says Emory. At age 24 — and after spending only a two-week furlough campaigning in person — he’d beat out incumbent Emory Medlin for the spot. “Enough people made mistakes (on the ballot) that I got it,” chuckles Emory, who became the youngest prosecutor Barry County ever had.
Printing a new chapter
The end of the ‘40s was a busy time for Emory. He took office as prosecutor in 1947 and married his wife, Jean, in 1949. That same year, he added a second career as a newspaperman when he purchased the Cassville Republican. The paper’s seller? The aforementioned E.N. Meador, who was for a second time influencing the young attorney’s career.
Emory, Jean and their two sons are pictured in 1954.
Emory and Jean ran the newspaper, along with partner Wayne Ennis, until Wayne’s death in 1963 when the Meltons’ interest was sold to Wayne’s widow, Lillian. But that wasn’t the end of the Emory’s time in the newspaper business: He eventually bought the Nixa Enterprise, and in 1967, the Barry County Advertiser was born. He’s served as the latter’s owner and publisher ever since.
The path to politics
After leaving the prosecutor’s office in 1950, Emory swore that he’d never have anything else to do with public office. “And for 20 years, I didn’t,” he says. But that all changed in 1970, when the senator in his district told Emory he was quitting and asked if he’d run for his spot.
Emory decided to go for it, and began his campaign — which he found difficult because of being a lawyer. “People are suspicious of lawyers,” says Emory. “I had to dispel that notion, so I tried to promote myself as a newspaperman.”
During that campaign, Emory drove more than 50,000 miles and visited each of his 289 precincts to visit his prospective constituents. “I recall one day, driving down through Douglas County, there was a fellow mowing in a field over across the creek there,” says Emory. Determined to talk to the man, Emory took a slightly unconventional approach. “I sat down, took off my shoes, rolled up my britches’ legs and I waded the creek,” he recalls.
That type of campaigning garnered Emory a lot of attention. “He told everybody he saw for a week about that,” says Emory of a similar example. “Go talk to him, he’ll spread your story. That’s how I won that.”
For the next 24 years, Emory served as senator of the 31st district. He became the first Republican since 1948 to preside over the body before finally retiring from the political eye in 1996. During his time in office, he was known as the “conservative conscience of the Senate,” a title which he says believes tied to him reading every bill he ever voted for. “Because I was looking out for the taxpayer,” says Emory. After all, he wanted to be able to explain to his constituents why he voted as he did.
Today and tomorrow
A step into Emory’s office is like a step back in time. While there’s no computer to be seen, there are accolades galore. Laden with plaques — and accented by framed comic strips — Emory’s walls serve as a testament to his years of service. Another example simply won’t fit in his office: It’s out at Roaring River State Park, where the park’s lodge is named in his honor after he (finally, according to him) got the legislature to fund $600,000 for its construction.
Emory’s a bit more selective about what cases he takes these days, but retirement isn’t in his mind just yet. After all, “You’ve got to have something to occupy your time or you get stale,” he says — and gets ready to meet with his next client of the day.
Want to know more? Read on for a few of Emory’s memories about growing up in the Great Depression
The Great Depression was a time of challenge for people nationwide, and the citizens of Barry County weren’t any exception. Emory Melton saw firsthand the challenges they faced through his father’s role on the county commission, which was solely responsible for distributing aid to struggling local families.
“In 19 and 30, the state did not furnish relief of any kind to anybody,” says Emory. “Period. Neither did the federal government. They were totally removed. You had nothing in the way of relief. Well, you recall the depression started in 1929. And the people of the county needed any relief, it had to come through the county commission. And that wasn’t easy because the county didn’t have any money.”
The people were, quite literally, dirt poor as well. “Many families out here were living on dirt floors,” says Emory. However, the county was able to gather a limited amount of relief aid for its residents, which was distributed via “warrants” for a few dollars on the first Monday of each month.
Emory recalls accompanying his dad to the courthouse for some of those sessions. “I’d see these people as they came in, but they still had a great deal of pride,” recalls Emory. “Something you don’t see much of today. They were asking for somebody to help.”
After some questioning about their financial standing, each family might be given around $5. “Now that had to run for the entire month,” says Emory. “And it wasn’t very much in today’s thinking. But it would buy an awful lot of groceries. Eggs were selling for 6 cents a dozen. Gasoline was 8 cents a gallon.”
That system, although well intentioned, was flawed: Even though the county managed to issue those warrants, which were similar to checks, few had the ability to cash them. So recipients would find someone, anyone, to purchase the warrants at a reduced price. “That person who got that $5 warrant would have to sell it to somebody at a reduction,” says Emory. “So they could draw the interest on it, and eventually it would be paid.”
Edit: Emory Melton passed away on Dec. 26, 2015