MISSOULA — U.S. Senator John David Melcher, DVM Ret. died peacefully at home April 12, 2018, sitting in his favorite chair with a view of Rattlesnake Creek. He was 93-years-old.
John was born Sept. 6, 1924, in Sioux City, Iowa, to Anthony and Nell Melcher, the second of three boys. His parents divorced when he was young, after the death of his younger brother, Patrick. His father was on the road as a salesman of farm pumps during the Great Depression and he and his older brother Robert lived with two aunts and his grandmother. When he was sixteen, John went to live with his mother, who had married a rancher in South Dakota.
There he met Ruth Klein, whose parents owned a boarding house where he stayed when weather prevented either a horseback ride or drive of an old jalopy to town. They soon fell in love but were separated after graduating high school in 1942. John attended the University of Minnesota for one year before being called to serve in George Patton’s Third Army. He was an infantryman, fighting in France and then Germany in the Battle of the Bulge. Wounded in the knee near Trier, Germany, he returned stateside in early 1945. For his service, he received the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and later the Bronze Star.
He and Ruth married a few months after his return and they drove to Iowa, where he enrolled as a veterinary student at Iowa State University. After graduating in 1950, they moved to Montana, which he had come to love during summer sales trips with his father. With them were their first two children, David Joseph and Teresa Ann. Joan Carol was born soon thereafter. They established a veterinary practice in Forsyth where none had been and John served a radius of 80 miles each direction in a small and large animal practice.
In 1954 they lost David to what they later determined was Reyes Syndrome. A year later, the birth of Mary Susan brought sunshine back into their lives and soon two more children, Robert Conrad and John Christopher, joined the family. Ruth was his North Star, usually a strong advocate, but never shy in stating her views if different from his. Together they knew great joy and great sorrow in a marriage lasting 69 years.
John became interested in politics early in his life, serving first as alderman in Forsyth and then mayor. He was elected to the state legislature, serving in both houses. In 1966 he ran for U.S. Congress against James Battin and lost. When a special election was called in 1969, he was the Democrat’s choice and won. He won three more full terms in Congress before running for the Senate in 1976, keeping retiring U.S. Senator Mike Mansfield’s seat in the Democratic column.
He won a second term in 1982 but was defeated by Conrad Burns in 1988. John and other members of the Montana delegation crafted a wilderness bill that John helped shepherd through the Senate; it passed both houses. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill less than two weeks before the election and that hurt John’s chances, although he always admitted he had run a poor campaign. He threw his hat in the ring once again six years later but was defeated in the primary by John Mudd.
John was a passionate advocate for agriculture, organized labor, programs that gave the poor and disadvantaged a step up, Native Americans, soil conservation, public lands, seniors, and protection of primates used in laboratory research. He was a key leader in the program to provide excess cheese to food banks and worked in a variety of capacities to assure food security at home and abroad.
He was an adept legislator and became known for his ability to craft and pass legislation. During the 1988 campaign Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio called to tell him that only two other Senators had more legislation passed in 1987 than he did. One legacy was his work on amendments to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which assured environmental protection in coal mining and funds for reclamation of the land. He believed in economic development as long as strong protections for labor and the environment were written into law.
An animal lover to the end, he kept two cats, Abigail and Emily, in his Senate office; he had several well-loved dogs—before and after leaving public office.
John was clearly not ready to retire in 1988 so he set up shop as a consultant/lobbyist in Washington, D.C. One of his clients was Jane Goodall. Together they lobbied for protections for the psychological well being of primates used in laboratory research. Goodall noted another achievement, a 1984 amendment to the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, in an inscription of her book “The Champanzees of Gombe” (1986): “When this bill is well and truly implemented, the difference in the lives of hundreds of animals will truly be great.”
Soon he became of valued member of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), coaching veterinarians in the legislative process and helping them contribute to passage of bills in their interests. He also worked to see more veterinary colleges established. In 2008, the AVMA established the John Melcher Leadership Award, which provides grants to faculty and staff of members of the Association of American Colleges of Veterinary Medicine.
Mike Chaddick, then director of the AVMA governmental relations division and now an associate dean at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University, remembers: “In the years that I worked at AVMA, all I learned came from Senator Melcher. He was our mentor and father figure.”
John was an early supporter of Barack Obama and in 2008, as a super delegate, led the senior caucus at the Democratic nominating convention.
He retired at the age of 86. At this time he began telling stories, which often centered on his childhood and time as a veterinarian in Forsyth. Most hailed interesting animals or showed his fascination with every day people. He lost Ruth in 2015. In his last years he suffered from vascular dementia but was able to contribute to the conversation, if only through off-the-cuff humor. John was a humble man, although known also to be tough, practical and, at times, ornery. One of his daughters spent an afternoon hanging most of the plaques and various honors he received over the years. A few months later, John asked that they be removed and an American flag put in their place.
He was able to stay in his home to the end, thanks to his own stubbornness and help from his children and many caregivers, notably Carolyn Walker, Ivalyne Judge and Loren Osler, who was his companion for the last two years of his life. He is survived by his children, Teresa Thompson (Gene), Joan Melcher (Kelly Spears), Mary Melcher (Tom Post), Robert Melcher, and John Melcher (Sallie); 10 grandchildren; five great grandchildren, brother Robert Melcher (Lorraine), brother Thomas (Diane), and sister Virginia (Greg) DiNovis.
He lives on in the hearts of his children, grandchildren and the Montanans he loved.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday, April 24, at the Immaculate Conception Church in Forsyth and are open to the public. Stevenson and Sons Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements. To leave condolences for the family, please visit our website at stevensonandsons.com. For those who would like to donate in John’s name, his favorite charities were the Missoula Food Bank, CARE, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ASPCA.