The man behind the Mitchell Melich Scholarship

Mitchell Melich was a Utah man in every sense of the word.

He earned his law degree from the University of Utah in 1934 and went on to serve the university he loved as a regent and an advisory council member.

When Melich died in 1999 at the age of 87 it was no surprise to his family that the loyal Ute wanted to give back to the institution that helped him build the foundation for a successful career path.

“He loved the U. He was such a Ute,” recalled his daughter Nancy Melich, who lives in Utah. “He had a loyalty to what he had learned at the U.”

The Mitchell Melich Scholarship was first established by Melich in 1983 and then continued by family and friends.  It is designed for law students enrolled at the College of Law and has been awarded annually to recipients based on merit and need. Behind the scholarship is the memory of Melich, who valued public service and had a full life of , including a run as the Republican candidate for governor of Utah in 1964 and time as solicitor in the Nixon administration.

This year, the scholarship has grown to include an endowment, which will allow Melich’s gift to the law school to keep on giving to future law school for decades to come.

“The University of Utah was a place my grandfather took great pride in throughout his legal career, which spanned near half a century.   Education was very important to him and he was instrumental in imparting that value to all of his children and grandchildren.  He was a believer in hard work, integrity, and giving back to the community of which you are a part,” said Shelly Ossana, Melich’s granddaughter, who for years has contributed to the scholarship fund in her grandfather’s honor.

“A legacy of giving back to the institution which mattered so much to him and of helping students achieve their educational goals is one that would make him proud,” she said.

A study room on the fourth floor of the S.J. Quinney College of Law building was named in honor of Melich when the new facility opened in 2015, and in the room is a plaque that tells more of Melich’s inspirational life story.

Born to Serbian immigrants, Melich grew up in Bingham Canyon. He lived in Moab for 30 years after his graduation from law school, raising four children with his wife, Dorie.  He was a central figure in the uranium boom of the 1950s in that region.

While in Moab, he landed in public office, serving for 20 years as town attorney and also working briefly as the Grand County attorney. He was elected to the Utah State Senate in 1942 at age 30, becoming the youngest member of the legislature. He held the post for eight years.

He returned to Salt Lake City in 1964 with greater political aspirations and ran for governor, losing to Calvin Rampton. In 1969, he was appointed solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior and served four years in Washington before relocating back to Utah in 1973.

He practiced law at Ray Quinney and Nebeker for the remainder of his legal career, a passion which inspired him to continue going into the office well into his early 80s. He played a supporting role in the watching the U’s research park take shape, when in 1968 the U.S. granted 593 acres of land to the U for use of academic expansion.  In 1969, Melich received the U’s highest honor given to former students, in being awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award. Along the way, he also contributed to community service not only at the U, but through many foundations, including time as a director at St. Mark’s Hospital and as a supporter of the Utah chapter of the Arthritis Foundation.

“Mitch was a lifelong learner; he was intensely curious and a voracious reader,” his obituary stated in 1999. “His passion for travel took him to national parks and Republican national conventions with his children, on a journey around the world, on a trip to China when it opened to foreign visitors, and to his parents’ Yugoslavian homeland. He enjoyed golf and avidly rooted for the Utes. He appreciated and supported the arts and, as a member of the State Senate, established legislation founding the Utah Symphony.”

Although it’s been nearly 20 years since Melich passed away, his family said they are happy that the story of his well-lived life can be shared with today’s generation of law students, who may find inspiration to pursue public service careers of their own thanks to the generous gifts made by Melich and his family.

Nancy Melich recalled a visit to Croatia with her father in 1972 to see the birthplace of family who immigrated to the U.S.  It was the first time she saw her father cry, as he stood in a barn where his own father’s humble journey to a better life in the U.S. started.

In seeing her father’s own story memorialized in the law school study room, Nancy Melich said she’s hopeful students will perhaps pause to think about her father’s own path to success when they are struggling —and that Melich’s story will encourage them to keep pushing forward.

“Perhaps dad that day, standing on that ground in Croatia, thought about his own father and what he went through (to come to the U.S.) Dad, on some level, went from those same humble beginnings to becoming a prominent lawyer,” said Nancy Melich. “When I see my dad’s name on the room in the law school, I hope that students will see plaque …  and maybe it will offer some encouragement on a day when they need it and maybe it will encourage them.”

“I hope they see it and think, ‘Keep going, you too can be a successful and ethical lawyer.”