Former mayor of Odessa Larry Melton speaks about changes he has seen since his time out of office during an interview Jan. 17 in his office at Johnson, Miller & Co.
“It’s just the idea of facing something others have worked on and seeing if I can help them be successful,” he said.
Chief executive officer of the Johnson, Miller CPA firm for 20 years, he continues in that post, and he has led criticisms of the Odessa City Council and helped power a drive to raise a petition, add a council member and let the mayor vote on any issue.
Melton was mayor longer than anyone in history from 2001-12, and he will keep that record because the city charter has since been amended to limit mayors, who currently may vote only to break ties, to eight years.
Referring to council members Filiberto Gonzales, Malcolm Hamilton and Barbara Graff, Melton said, “They claim they’re not a bloc, but it looks apparent to me that they are because they vote alike on some critical issues.
“I honestly don’t know what caused the rift, but (fellow members) Dewey Bryant, Mike Gardner and Mayor (David) Turner seem to look at things much differently. The mayor needs a vote. This would not have occurred if we had had that.”
Melton is a native of Chickasha, Okla., who came to Odessa with his family as a boy, graduated from Odessa High School in 1956 and earned bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and industrial engineering at Texas Tech University.
He served two years as an Army artillery officer at Fort Sill, Okla., and returned here to Phillips Petroleum, where his father Leon and mother Yvonne worked in the same building at Fourth Street and Washington Avenue, his dad as an instrumentation manager and his mom as a payroll clerk.
Melton and his wife J’Nevelyn have two children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He has a sister.
“Phillips was a family-oriented company,” he said. “I worked on the eighth floor, Dad was on the sixth and Mom was on the fourth.”
He left Phillips after two years to join the trust department of a Midland bank, starting a 30-year career that saw him serve as president successively of Home Savings Association, First National Bank, Texas National Bank, InterFirst Bank and Nations Bank as the industry grew increasingly turbulent. “I worked for four or five banks, sometimes in the same office,” he said.
So Melton was amenable when the owners of Johnson, Miller asked him to serve as chief administrative officer for their offices here and in Midland and Hobbs, N.M. There are two branches in the Odessa office for auditing and tax consultancy. “We have 13 partners, another 20 CPAs and a total staff of about 105,” he said.
“I was supposed to retire on Dec. 31, 2016, but they brought me back part-time and haven’t found anyone yet. When we have an issue of client satisfaction, I’m called in to work with the client. Each office has a managing partner, and my staff and I provide administrative services, internal finance reports, human resources and recruiting for all four offices and the firm.”
Melton says his work as the District 3 councilman for three years and then mayor was challenging, often requiring 20 hours a week; but he looks back with pride on the construction of the JBS Parkway overpass at Business I-20 and lowering the property tax rate by small amounts for eight consecutive years. “The overpass was a touchy situation,” he said.
“I lived in that district, and people were either for you or against you. There was a lot of opposition in my neighborhood. But it’s a great inlet into our city. We also opened two new fire stations and replaced all but two stations without a tax increase.
“There were times when the council and I were criticized. The comments really got to me at times until I was given an idea involving a Q-Tip, meaning ‘Quit Taking It Personally.’ I kept a Q-Tip at the base of my computer so I could see it when I was discouraged. Most times it worked, and I still use it today.”
Asked who helped him most as mayor, Melton listed former councilmen Jimmy Goates, Dean Combs, Brandon Tate and Royce Bodiford. “I thoroughly enjoyed serving the people of Odessa,” said Melton, who publicly criticized the current council at two meetings last year.
“Barbara Graff and I were on the council together, and I thought she did a fairly decent job. I don’t know what caused her turnaround. I have talked to Filiberto once, but I don’t know Malcolm. When the meeting is over, he’s gone. He doesn’t wait around for anything.”
Referring to the September firing of City Manager Richard Morton on a 3-2 vote, Melton said, “It was unjustified and ungrateful because Richard had done a great job. I don’t know what caused them to get crosswise, but it was a travesty for our community.”
He said the council’s May 2017 rejection of incentives for Weir Oil to build a $25-million customer service center off I-20 in East Odessa “was a total disaster.”
“The Odessa Development Corp. had said to give Weir the incentives and bring them in and then the council changed it,” he said. “When you have a committee to do a job, let them do it. I’m disgusted with them. With Weir, they were doing everything in secret.”
Melton has been president since leaving office of the Odessa Housing Authority, which issues 1,300 rental vouchers and manages three apartment complexes with 250 rooms.
He said the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Tech and the Army were good training, but his work with the Jaycees following his return was most valuable. He was active in the Midland and Odessa Jaycees and was statewide vice president of the Texas Jaycees, or Junior Chamber of Commerce. “That organization thrived on leadership training,” he said.
“I worked with Bill Noel, John Ben Shepperd and Pinkie Roden, who were some of our cream-of-the-crop leaders. We wouldn’t have had the oil and gas industry development south of the interstate without Bill’s experience and efforts, and John Ben was the most enthusiastic person you ever met in your life. He always had a dozen projects going. For the reputation Pinkie had, he was the most mild-mannered person. He had a gift for bringing groups together.”
Melton’s personal mentor was accountant Bill Elms. “We were in the Jaycees together, and Bill was a great community leader,” he said. “I never saw him quit on a project.”
Melton had a near-death experience at Fort Sill. A first lieutenant, he was the executive officer of an artillery battery, practicing with four 105-millimeter cannons. “We were firing at junk cars two miles from there, and one of the soldiers misset the timer on a shell that exploded just as it came out of the gun and killed one young man and injured several others,” he said.
“A lieutenant standing next to me got his heel shot off. I need hearing aids in both ears.”
Morton, now general manager of Vista Ridge Mall in Lewisville, said Melton “has one of the fastest wits of anyone I’ve known.”
“I worked for him for 11 years and got to see him react to all kinds of situations, and he often defused tense situations with his humor, which is sometimes out of the blue,” Morton said. “Just about every entity in the community wants Larry to be part of their board because it lends instant credibility.”
“Larry and I were sitting at the bar in a restaurant in Washington with J’Nevelyn between us when this beautiful woman walked in and sat next to Larry. Larry looked at her and looked at J’Nevelyn and me and looked at the young lady and back to us and then asked J’Nevelyn and me, ‘How long have you been married?’”
“I think he probably slept on the couch that night.”
Former Odessa Chamber of Commerce CEO Mike George said Melton is as well-known for his humor as his business and political acumen. “Whatever organization Larry is involved with, whether it’s the city, the Rotary Club, the First United Methodist Church or any committee, he always asks if a decision is morally right,” George said.
“He’d be invited to speak when various groups came to town. He did research on them and made them feel welcome because he knew something about them, and he always added an appropriate joke. That’s the mark of a good leader, not necessarily how many votes you get but how many people you get to vote with you.”
Melton is on the First Methodist Church Council and is treasurer of the church’s adult Sunday school class. “Your faith has to be in the forefront of all you do,” he said.
“Many days when I was in office, I prayed for guidance. God always gives an answer, but the timing and answer may be different than what you want. You’ve got to surrender yourself to the Lord. None of us can do that 100 percent, but we do the best we can.”
Bob Campbell is a reporter for the Odessa American covering Religion and Lifestyle in the Permian Basin.