Robert L. Meeks, Miami ’06, was the living definition of a man of fine character. Born in a log cabin in Missouri, he entered Miami University as a teenage preparatory student. He was only 16 years old when he joined the group of older students who formed the Non-Fraternity Association on March 17, 1906. At that first meeting, his older peers thought enough of him that they elected him secretary of the organization that would become Phi Kappa Tau.
Meeks graduated in 1910 and later earned a Master’s Degree in education from Columbia University. He began a long and distinguished career as an educator and school administrator, first in Butler County, near Oxford, later in Portsmouth, Ohio, and for 32 years as assistant principal of Lakewood High School in suburban Cleveland. Meeks married, raised two sons and was a committed Methodist layman and Mason, where he was a charter member of the Clifton Masonic Lodge.
By any measure, Meeks’ commitment to his career in education, his family and his community would have been the very definition of character. But there was much more this man who was once described as being “small in stature but giant in character.”
Robert Meeks had a deep commitment to peace and social justice which was rooted in his Christian faith which he demonstrated in a very public way. In the early days of the NAACP in Cleveland, Meeks joined the organization to show his support for racial equality. During World War II, he took an unpopular and public stand against the internment of Japanese Americans. This led to derision and hostility from some in his community, and even put his wife and children’s safety at risk, evidenced when a bullet came crashing through a window of their home.
He received national attention as a 73-year-old retiree when he joined a group of Methodist laymen and ministers who traveled together to help integrate Methodist churches in Jackson, Mississippi. In November 1963, he and a young Detroit minister named Donald E. Hall attempted to attend a church service at the all-white St. Luke’s Methodist Church in Jackson with another young African-American minister, Woodie White, who would later become the United Methodist Bishop of Indiana. The story of their arrest and jailing was front page news across America, and Detroit Methodist churches raised the money to pay the $1,000 fines to get them released from jail.
In January 1964, Meeks was helping a young Arab man to apply for citizenship, and when the immigration officer asked Meeks if he had ever been arrested, he was able to share the story of his experience in Mississippi with the African-American immigration officer. Before long, Meeks had convinced the officer to come to church with him in Lakewood. Meeks shared the story of his witness in a letter to Martin Luther King, Jr.
This story of one of Phi Kappa Tau’s first members continues to resonate as an example of a man of character who truly became a man of distinction.
You can discover more stories like this by exploring Phi Kappa Tau’s Laurel archives.