Rev. Melvin West’s earliest days in college, nearly 80 years ago, were spent serving the women of Delta Xi Chapter at the University of Missouri. His two years working at the Tri Delta house set him up for a lifetime of service – from serving his country to becoming a humanitarian on a global scale. Now at age 96, he credits his time at Tri Delta as a major stepping stone in his life’s journey.
Mel was born in 1924 and raised on a dairy farm in rural southwest Missouri. Following the severity of the Great Depression, he packed his two small suitcases to attend the University of Missouri in 1941. With only $250 and a Sears and Roebuck scholarship, he knew work would be a necessity during his education. He arrived in Columbia before the semester began to begin looking for work.
“I mowed a few lawns and early one afternoon I found myself in ‘sorority town,’” Mel said, “I didn’t know what a sorority was, but their lawn needed mowing.”
The maid at the chapter house, Hattie Miller, hired Mel to mow the lawn, then paint some rooms before the members moved back in for the fall term. Soon, the housemother hired him to be a houseboy (today, referred to as a dining assistant) which would provide him employment, new skills and many life lessons.
Having grown up poor on the dairy farm, Mel had one brother and no sisters. Soon, he would learn that life with 65 women every day would show him completely new perspectives. The majority of women came from affluent homes, but it was not their lifestyle which was a shock to him, as much as the waste of food!
Serving food, maintaining the property, assisting with “rush” party set up, washing windows – the day to day chores kept him busy in addition to his course load and working 14 hours per week at the campus bookstore. Tri Delta taught him to be a multitasker, but also gave him a sense of family.
Hattie Miller and the cook, Beulah Gray, were women of color. Melvin had grown up in an all-white area of Missouri and had only seen black men, women and families from a distance.
“I will always be grateful to both of them, for they were wonderful persons and treated me with love and respect,” Mel noted. “It’s a greater message about employers. You’re hiring someone to help them prepare for their next steps in their journey. That’s what they did for me, provided me genuine friendships and new understandings.”
A New Purpose
Following his time at Missouri, Mel joined the Marines, married his college sweetheart, Barbara, and ran his own dairy farm. He also began serving in ministry in local areas. As he began missionary work, friends and colleagues encouraged him to foster his humanitarian work. There were plenty of people to milk the cows, but not everyone had his gift as a humanitarian. Eventually, he moved his family to Dallas to attend Seminary at Southern Methodist. He would go on to have a hand in founding several notable faith-based, non-governmental organizations in a long career as a pastor and anti-poverty activist.
“The room of mission does not have just one door – there’s another door going out to lead you to other things.”Melvin West
That door indeed created a new purpose in Mel’s life. In 1994, Mel and Barbara attended a presentation by a colleague and missionary Rev. Larry Hills who was doing work in Zaire. He learned that Larry was in desperate need of three-wheeled, hand-cranked sturdy wheelchairs that could go where ordinary wheelchairs could not. So many people in Zaire were affected by war, polio and snake bites that simple mobility had become a problem for many.
Though he had no experience in creating such machines, Mel was still up for the task of making the impossible possible. Mel’s close friend Earl Miner was a genius in the creative development of machines. With his help, they developed prototypes for what have become Personal Energy Transportation vehicles, or PETs. After several models and a few piles of junk later, they settled on a design and sent four to Zaire. The PETs worked – it was exactly what was needed.
Giving the Gift of Mobility
Soon, Mel began to set up more PET production back in Columbia, and the production began to spread to more and more locations across the United States. This new purpose would eventually become Mobility Worldwide, created with a mission to bring the gift of mobility and dignity to those in developing countries who are unable to walk. These carts have allowed children to attend school, families to provide for their dependents and increase the access to medical care for those in need. Recently, Mobility Worldwide celebrated its 25th year and the creation of its 80,000th PET cart.
“The greatest honor a person can have is serving others,” Mel said.
The humble beginnings of a houseboy who became a global humanitarian started as he served Tri Deltas at 901 Richmond St. in Columbia, Missouri. In fall 2019, Mel was the guest speaker for a Tri Delta Founders’ Day event in Columbia, offering his wisdom and inspiration to Tri Deltas of all ages. He also wanted to thank Tri Delta for showing him kindness and giving him self-assurance to move on and do more with his life.
“Those were two very busy and exciting years for me. I learned about another level of society, about the Greek culture and developed friends and co-workers of another race. And I learned how to cut a grapefruit fancy and put a cherry on top.”