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My Turn: Black History Month - A eulogy for Rob Meachum, an African-American man

Posted: February 28, 2013 - 12:10am

Rob Meachum, 57, a resident of Juneau, died on Jan. 1, 2013. Rob, an African American, born in Chicago on Feb. 27, 1955, grew up in Detroit and was the eldest of seven children born to Dr. Floyd T. and Mrs. Bobette Meachum. As many young families, even those whose father is a doctor, struggled financially in the early years and yet Rob took extracurricular lessons in swimming, boxing, tennis, golf and typing and in the summers attended Camp Westminster on the UP. He first-hand witnessed the Detroit race riot in 1967 and helped his father clean up broken window glass on the street at his clinic and attended the private Detroit Country Day High School and wore a uniform to school that included a tie.

In 1977 Rob graduated from the University of Michigan where he was co-editor-in-chief of the Michigan Daily. Though his parents had higher aspirations for him, upon graduation Rob took a position as a news journalist in Tallahassee. His parents worried for his safety as a young Northern black man in The South. Rob reported on county issues and the strife of poverty he observed. He was especially struck by how the educational, economic and justice systems worked in sync to keep those born into poverty, poor, and the people he observed and reported on were primarily African-American. Though living on a news reporter’s wages, Rob resolved to go to law school so that he could have a greater and more direct impact for poor people.

Rob put himself through law school and graduated from Northeastern University School of Law in Boston after having lived with many roommates and worked summer co-ops and was eligible for and received food-stamps and federal, state and school loans which he finally paid off 10 years after graduation.

Upon graduation, Rob moved to Alaska and began working for the Alaska Public Defender Agency, part of State of Alaska government. The Agency’s mission “To provide constitutionally mandated legal representation to indigent clients appointed by the court,” fit Rob’s bill. It is true that part of that time was spent as an investigator and a paralegal while he took the Alaska Bar Exam over and again before he passed it. Yet, this was all according to plan, just a bit delayed. Being an attorney at the Public Defender Agency is not a glamorous job – being court-appointed to represent people who may not want you to represent them and who may question your motives for being a public defender or your sharpness as an attorney was not easy. There were many upsides to the job including satisfaction of doing the job one set out to do. Rob rarely spoke about his personal values or the reasons he worked the job that he worked for 30 years. But, there he was every morning, just doing it.

Sometimes people, including family and friends questioned his career choice and wondered if he would ever leave and he would smile or just move on to another topic. I think he did that because if you didn’t understand his motivations by now you never would and he was never going to convince you, and further, it was not his job to make you understand. Rob did go after another job in 2007 that he did not get - the position of judge, one of the only other jobs that held interest for him where he could make a difference. He enjoyed the challenge of going after that job and did not regret doing it and though disappointed that he was not chosen, he was pleased when a well-qualified friend got it.

Rob by sheer strength of will to remain unengaged in any other way always demanded others judge him on the content of his character and not the length of time as a public defender, the shabby car he drove for 20 years, his dress, or NEVER by the color of his skin. I hope Rob like many others before him and those still living helped pave the way in Alaska and everywhere for African-Americans and people of color to be judged solely on the content of their characters.

• Westman, a Juneau resident, wrote this column about her spouse.

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