Harry Meshel dedicated his life to the betterment of the Valley

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The 102nd annual Mahoning Valley McKinley Club banquet will be at 6 p.m. Sept. 28 at the McKinley Memorial Auditorium in Niles with Paul Kengor, a conservative commentator and author, as the guest speaker.

The event, which is normally held at the beginning of the year, brings together Republicans from Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties to honor William McKinley, the nation’s 25th president who was born in Niles on Jan. 29, 1843.

Tickets are $35 each and can be obtained by mailing checks to McKinley Club, P.O. Box 9012, Youngstown, Ohio 44513.

I received the news of Harry Meshel’s death in a text message while driving home from a vacation with my wife.

While it wasn’t a surprise, the news was still devastating.

Meshel, 93, was one of the most accomplished politicians in the Mahoning Valley, spending more than 22 years in the Ohio Senate, most of it in leadership.

He resigned in 1993 to take over a struggling state Democratic Party as its chairman, and left after two years that included the political party’s historically bad 1994 statewide election.

Around the same time Meshel was leaving politics, I came to The Vindicator, spending 1995 to 2000 covering Trumbull County.

I took over the politics beat in 2000, and immediately connected with Meshel.

If I had a political question, he usually had the answer.

If I needed insight or a phone number, I often went to Meshel who almost always came through.

And could he tell a story. There weren’t many quick conversations with Meshel. But that was fine because I learned so much from him.

He was always very generous with his time.

I remember standing outside Bruce Zoldan’s house for a private political fundraiser. Meshel came over to say hello before going in, tried – unsuccessfully – to get me inside and to let me know he’d be glad to talk about the event after it was over.

When the motorcade drove away, I got on the phone and called Meshel. Not only did he give me a blow-by-blow description of the event, but he passed his cellphone around to other people.

I last saw Meshel a few weeks before he died. The newsroom had received tips he was in failing health.

I was asked to drive to where Meshel was staying and check on him.

He obviously was in weak condition, but he recognized me, we held hands and attempted to have a brief conversation.

It really shook me to see him that way. Yes he was 93 years old and had struggled with health issues the past few years, but I’ll always remember the energetic, colorful person I knew.

It’s going to be tough to go to his funeral Saturday.

But I’m sure he’ll be remembered for his many accomplishments and for making the Valley a better place.

Here are just a few of the things Meshel did for the area:

Helped Youngstown State University receive about $150 million in state funding. Meshel Hall, its technology center, is named in his honor.

Assisted in establishing the Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown, originally known as the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine.

Created collective-bargaining laws for public employees.

Guided into law the creation of a state infrastructure fund that provides grants to local governments for roads, bridges, sewer and water improvements.

Sponsored a bill of rights for the handicapped that opened employment, education and civil rights to the physically challenged.

Helped establish business incubators.

Secured $160 million in grants and loans for economic development projects in the Valley.

Formed the CASTLO Community Improvement Corp.

Obtained $3 million in state funds for the creation of the Youngstown Museum for Industry and Labor, also called the Steel Museum.

I conducted a lengthy interview with him in June 2014 to commemorate his 90th birthday.

He told me though he was somewhat interested in politics before, it was the 1960 presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy that inspired him to get involved in politics. He organized a citizens committee on his own for Kennedy in Mahoning County.

The committee attracted the attention of Kennedy’s campaign, and after the election, officials with Kennedy’s administration offered Meshel a job, but withdrew it when they found out he didn’t have a law degree.

The irony, Meshel said, was he had planned to attend law school at Youngstown University, but shortly after making that decision the law school closed.

If there was an obstacle, Meshel made the best of the situation.

He lost primaries in 1960 and 1962 for Mahoning County commissioner, but didn’t give up and was chosen by Youngstown Mayor Anthony B. Flask to be his administrative assistant in January 1964.

Flask moved Meshel to director of urban renewal, but he was out of that job in 1969 when the Democratic mayor was defeated by Republican Jack Hunter.

A year later, Meshel was elected state senator, and spent 22 years there. During that time, he served as Senate president, Democratic leader, assistant president pro tem and chairman of the finance committee.

Rest in peace, Harry. You’ll be greatly missed.

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