When Patricia Melton ’82 graduated from Yale, she was the most decorated women’s track and field athlete in school history. Twenty-eight years later she’s still receiving recognition.
On Martin Luther King Day, Melton joined NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabar, comedian Bill Cosby and Anita DeFrantz, the first African American woman to serve on the International Olympics Committee, as one of 22 athletes selected for the NCAA’s new Black History Month portion of its Hall of Champions in Indianapolis, Ind. The Black History Month tribute consists of a panel of photos and accomplishments of these 22 athletes that will remain in the Hall of Champions through the end of the month.
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“We do something every year in celebration of this particular month,” said Gail Dent, a spokeswoman for the NCAA Hall of Champions. “The Hall of Champions staff decided to look back at who some of the outstanding [black] student-athletes have been in history and she was selected as one of them.”
The NCAA recognized 11 black men and 11 black women in the Hall of Champions in order to celebrate black athletes who had not only excelled in their sport, but also used the skills they learned during their time as athletes in careers that have made an impact on the world.
Melton, who was named the most outstanding performer at three Ivy Championship meets and held records in every single indoor and outdoor running event at the time of her graduation from Yale, now designs new charter schools in areas with traditionally low academic achievement, which she said are beneficial because they give non-profits the chance to open a public school and test new models of education which might not be implemented in traditional public school districts.
Melton has focused her efforts on implementing the model of early college high schools, which allows at-risk students to take college courses during their high school education, in urban areas such as Cleveland and Indianapolis. Melton said the advantage of these schools is the amount of one-on-one attention students receive, as well as the opportunity for students to get college course experience before graduating from high school.
And Melton says the early college high school model is working.
Because of its success, Melton said the Indianapolis School District has implemented the same model in order to compete for students with charter schools that use the early college high school model. Melton said the Indianapolis School District last year registered an increase of three percent in graduation rate and saw the first enrollment increase in many years after adopting the early college high school model.
Melton traces her passion for education back to her childhood growing up in a single-parent family in inner-city Cleveland. She said her mother did not graduate from high school and saw it as her duty to encourage her children to do so.
“She regretted [not graduating from high school],” Melton said. “She focused on constantly making sure that we all would finish school because she realized how that was very limiting for her. She absolutely drilled into her kids’ heads that you would get your high school diploma and this was back in the day when getting a high school diploma would be a big thing.”
Melton said her mother died in a car accident when she was 12, which she called the most traumatic experience of her life. She lived with her 25-year-old sister until a friend told her about a student involved in the A Better Chance program. She said from that point on, her life changed forever.
A Better Chance is a program designed to help change minority students’ lives by offering scholarships for students who show a strong potential to attend prestigious prep schools such as Phillips Academy.
“I said I want to get one of these scholarships,” Melton said. “I was totally obsessed with getting one and I had a strategy and everything. I wrote them [a year ahead] saying ‘This is my name, this is where I’m going to be applying so look for me.’ And sure enough I was accepted at Exeter and Middlesex.”
Melton chose Middlesex in Concord, Mass., where she began competing in field hockey and lacrosse, which she said became the passion of her life. She was recruited to compete for both Yale and Brown, and said she chose Yale because of its stronger field hockey program.
But due to the challenges she faced as the only black member of the field hockey team, Melton said she decided to try out for the track team as a walk on instead.
“I couldn’t have even imagined the success that I had in track and field,” Melton said.
Melton quickly earned a spot in the annals of Yale’s track and field history — by her senior year, she had set records in every single indoor and outdoor running event, was named the most outstanding performer at three Ivy Championship meets and was the winner of the Nellie P. Elliot Award, an award given to a senior female athlete who has succeeded in her sport while exemplifying Yale tradition. Two of her records — the 400-meter dash (56.38 seconds) and the 400-meter hurdles (57.86 seconds) — still hold today.
“This year’s recipient has combined outstanding athletic ability with a steadfast determination to excel,” former Yale athletic director Frank Ryan said while presenting Melton with the Nellie P. Elliot Award on Class Day 1982. “Her achievements go beyond individual laurels and as team captain, she has helped transform a once struggling program into one that is among the most competitive in the Ivy League.”
Men’s and women’s track and field head coach Mark Young, who was hired during Melton’s junior year in 1980, said that because women’s track and field had only recently been created as a varsity sport, the program was indeed struggling.
“The degree to which we had any success was because she did,” Young said.
But things were not always easy at Yale for Melton. After taking a year and a half off from Yale because of family trouble (she declined to elaborate), Melton said she discovered that her brother had been murdered on the night before registration. Upon hearing the news, she said she did not have the willpower to continue running track and lost all interest.
“I don’t even remember that next year,” Melton said. “It was devastating. I was really close to this brother and I can’t remember anything from that whole next year.”
But Young said that after talking and negotiating with Melton, she decided to come back.
“I think he knew I had been through a lot of difficulty [to get to] Yale, and I had a lot of difficulty while I was there,” she said. “He just seemed to understand. He didn’t pressure me, he just said he’d love to see me out, and the rest is history.”
And Melton came back as determined as ever.
Young recalled one moment in Melton’s athletic career at Yale which has left an impression on him ever since. In a meet at Brown, Young said Melton had already won four or five events, including the 400-meter hurdles and the 200-meter dash, which were back-to-back events.
“She had already done more than anybody could ask any athlete to reasonably do,” Young said. “She says to me, ‘If I run the relay and we win, then we win the meet.’ I said, ‘Pat, I can’t ask you to run another race, and she replied, ‘That’s not what I asked.’ ”
Melton went on to help win the relay and the meet for the Bulldogs, and she later won two individual national championships.
“Having an athlete achieve some national acclaim indicates that the program is growing and supportive, and it gave us our only real identity early,” Young said.
Mike Watson ’81, a friend of Melton’s since their freshman year, said he sees her achievements as something beyond athletics. He said Melton was not only down-to-earth and open to new experiences, but her ability to adapt from growing up in inner-city Cleveland to attending an East Coast prep school and graduating from Yale also impressed him.
“She became one of the most successful athletes at Yale in track and field and she did it without the support system that most students have,” Watson said. “Most students have parents at home. She came without that and really without any financial resources of her own to any degree. Despite that, she was able to get through Yale and pursue a very successful career.”
Melton is currently pursuing her doctoral degree at the University of Pennsylvania and said she plans to continue helping to improve education for those that need it so that they can benefit from the same educational opportunities she received.
“Yalies breathe it from the moment they step onto campus — this world is your oyster and you can do whatever you want,” Melton said. “Unfortunately people don’t think that way in a lot of places outside of Yale. What I want to do is bring a little bit of Yale to places that [can] have just as much political and social capital if they believe they [can].”
Melton was previously awarded the NCAA’s Silver Anniversary Award, which honors athletes 25 years after their graduation, for her involvement with improving education.