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Philip Melanson; professor doggedly sought to open government

Extracting certain documents from the government is a little like pulling a tooth, except it usually takes longer and frequently is more painful.

Philip H. Melanson practiced this paperwork dentistry for decades, gaining an international reputation for his success in helping force authorities to release reams of information about the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.

In the process Dr. Melanson developed a highly regarded expertise in filing Freedom of Information Act requests, which he passed along to generations of University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth students, ensuring that recalcitrant government officials will continue to face demands to disclose tightly held secrets that by law should be unrestricted.

``Democracy requires an informed citizenry, a free press, the public's right to know, and institutional checks and balances," he wrote in ``Secrecy Wars," his 2002 book about the government's reluctance to abide by its own disclosure rules. ``These ideals cannot be achieved without a free flow of information."

For all his distaste for secrecy, Dr. Melanson recognized the need for discretion about some personal matters. His death from cancer in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Monday took many by surprise on the campus, where he had taught for 35 years. He was 62 and had lived in Marion for 28 years.

``He just absolutely despised lying and secrecy from any public institution. He really felt it was one of the poisons that destroys democracy," said Clyde Barrow, a friend and colleague who directs the Center for Policy Analysis at the Dartmouth campus. ``He was just passionately devoted to openness."

``Whether it was assassinations or government secrecy, he really sought to expose the truth and to set the historical record straight," said Dr. Melanson's son Jess of Hoboken, N.J. ``It was important to him that we know the truth about what government does."

As a teenager growing up in Stoneham, Dr. Melanson was fleet of foot and got into the University of Connecticut ``on the strength of his running," his son said.

He received a bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees from the university, the last in 1972. Joining the faculty of what was then Southeastern Massachusetts University just before he was awarded a doctorate, Dr. Melanson never left and rose to become a chancellor professor of policy studies.

He had been named the university's scholar of the year in 2001, had served as chairman or acting chairman of the political science department on three separate occasions, and had directed the public policy program since 1999. Dr. Melanson also was coordinator since 1984 of the Robert F. Kennedy Assassination Archives in the university's library.

Judith Melanson said her husband's interest in government secrecy, particularly involving assassinations, initially was sparked by a paper one of his students wrote about the slaying of John F. Kennedy. Dr. Melanson's curiosity was piqued and he found his academic calling as he began to pursue information.

``It's a good example of how you can learn from your students as well as teach them," she said.

Though the assassinations of King and the Kennedys continue to generate debate about whether the single gunman identified in each killing was supported or encouraged by a larger network, Dr. Melanson ``just followed the evidence wherever it took him," his wife said.

``People would say, `Well, he was a conspiracy theorist,' " his son said. ``He wasn't looking for conspiracy. He was looking for the truth about these things."

In ``The Murkin Conspiracy," his 1989 book on the King assassination, Dr. Melanson wrote: ``If our history is to have meaning for our future, we need to know who is responsible . . . the recurrence of past evils can only be prevented if their existence is known and understood."

Dr. Melanson's expertise made him a such favorite of those producing television shows that ``it's not uncommon to be flipping through the channels and to see his face on TV," Barrow said.

In the classroom, Dr. Melanson was a popular professor whose courses on political assassinations were so sought out that he always had to turn away students. Barrow said he also was an innovator in structuring freedom-of-information classes so that students would have to file their own requests as part of the course work.

Between his own requests and those of his students, Barrow said, Dr. Melanson became adept at ``reading the redactions" -- those sections that officials black out before releasing a document. After requesting information from more than one agency, he would cross-reference the responses in a way that essentially allowed the blacked-out words to float to the surface.

Not that there weren't challenges. He received some documents that contained ``a date and pretty much nothing else on it," his son said. And he said his father once requested his own FBI file, only to receive a folder ``with a 20-year-old article and a 2-year-old article -- and nothing in between."

In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Melanson leaves another son, Bretton, of San Francisco.

A private service will be held tomorrow.

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