UNM People Changing Worlds: Phillip Melville and Dr. James F. Zimmerman
By Carolyn J. C. Thompson
Posted April 29, 2014
Like most parents, Edmond and Alice insisted that their son, Phillip, go to school and study hard. Easier said than done, given that the Melville family (then known as Meyer) was living in France in the early 1940s, under Nazi occupation.
This is a story about how belief in the power of education, some remarkable New Mexico connections, and the efforts of a University President saved the lives of an entire family during World War II. This is a story of bravery, courage, and selflessness that forever changed the world of a young Frenchman.
Born into a bourgeois Parisian family in 1922, Phillip and his sister, Francine, knew that learning was of highest importance to their parents.
“My father was a successful stockbroker, and both of my parents were free thinkers,” Phillip recalled. “They were extremely liberal, and committed pacifists. They made it clear that going to school was our first priority.
“We had a very good childhood,” he reminisced. “And then came Hitler.”
When war was declared in 1939, Phillip’s father expected Paris to be bombed, so the children were sent to a family farm in the countryside.
“The first thing that happened when I got to Normandy, was that I had to enroll in school,” Melville recollected with a smile. “When we relocated again to our grandparents’ home in Charente, back to school I went! But I knew I was lucky. Even though it was wartime, I was able to sit for and pass my graduation exams.”
But as the war progressed, so did the danger. By 1941, Phillip’s father became determined to get the family to the U.S.: To a place he knew about called New Mexico.
“My Uncle Leopold Meyer had left France for the U.S. sometime around 1904 and ended up in Albuquerque,” Phillip related. “Even with the great distance, my father and uncle had remained close. So Father wrote to ask for help in getting us out of France.
“Three things had to come together: We needed exit visas to leave, transport across the Atlantic, and permission to enter the U.S. Transport was possible through Portuguese contacts, since Portugal remained neutral during the war and also was strongly against Nazi Germany’s actions. Uncle Leopold worked with the Americans to secure entry visas.”
But a problem arose: While everyone else in the family was granted papers to leave, Phillip, who was of military age, was denied. In France, young men were being conscripted by the Nazi occupiers for their war effort.
“My father called us together and said, ‘We are either all going, or we are all staying,’ ” Phillip recalled. “He again wrote to Uncle Leopold, who happened to have made acquaintance with the president of the University of New Mexico. My uncle decided to take a chance.”
Leopold then called on President James Zimmerman and explained the situation. Zimmerman was impressed with the tenacity Phillip had demonstrated by earning his French baccalaureate against such odds. Touched by the story, Zimmerman was determined to help. He promised Leopold, “We will try to save this young man.”
“I can still see the letter President Zimmerman wrote on my behalf,” Phillip recalled. “It had a red ribbon, gold stamp, and the University seal. It was in English, and it said, ‘This is to inform you that Phillip Meyer has been granted a full fellowship to the University of New Mexico.’ ”
Phillip’s father took that letter to the Vichy government in one last attempt to gain permission for his son to leave. This time permission was granted. By late spring of 1942, the family, having changed their name to Melville, was headed to a new life in the U.S.
“When we arrived at the train station in Albuquerque and saw the Native Americans on the platform, I knew my world had changed forever,” Phillip recounted. “At that moment, my father and Uncle Leopold turned to me and said, ‘The first thing you are going to do is pay a visit to President Zimmerman to thank him.’ ”
“I was a little scared when we went to his office,” admitted Phillip. “The first thing Uncle Leopold said to President Zimmerman was ‘Here is the young man whose life you saved,’ and I knew it was true.”
Zimmerman asked Phillip about his plans.
“I said I wanted to become a civil engineer, and that I was also going to sign up for the draft and get a job.” Phillip chuckled, “And so I cleaned classrooms at night for 45 cents an hour.”
Phillip entered UNM that fall as a junior and graduated in 1944 with his degree in engineering. He then moved east, decided to become an American citizen, and later went on to earn his master’s degree and Ph.D.
Today, nearly 72 years after that meeting with Zimmerman, Dr. Phillip Melville still wells with emotion at the memory.
“I was a complete stranger, but President Zimmerman understood what I was up against and immediately took action to help,” Phillip stated. “I am forever grateful for his kindness and brave generosity. Quite literally, he saved my life.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The legacy of President Zimmerman continues to be remembered today through Zimmerman Library, named in his honor. To support the future of the library, please click here.
For more great stories like this, please click here.