A Q&A with Marygold Melli

The professor emerita reflects on a barrier-breaking career at the UW Law School

PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

Marygold Melli

Where did you grow up?
I moved to Madison with my family when I was ten years old in sixth grade. I attended St. Raphael’s Grade School, Edgewood High School and the University of Wisconsin–Madison and its law school.

I understand your family has a history in chocolate?
My brother-in-law Charles Melli had a chocolate shop in Racine, and my son Joseph has carried on the family tradition and sells chocolates online at mellichocolates.com.

What made you want to pursue law?
I did not have a very good reason; there were no lawyers in the family, nor did I know any. I did notice that many of the big decision makers in the world were lawyers.

When did you know you were successful?
When I was offered the first tenure-track position at the law school.

Yes, in 1959, you were the first woman to earn a tenure-track position at the UW Law School. What was it like working there
at that time?

Both the faculty and the student body were mostly male, but by that time I was used to it and thoroughly enjoyed my time at the law school.

Throughout your career, were you aware of how your work was paving the way for other female lawyers? Is this something you thought about?
No, I did not think of myself as any kind of a trailblazer.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Raising four wonderful children, and drafting the legislation to reorganize the Wisconsin court system.

What goal are you currently working on?
At eighty-eight, my current goal is to adjust to old age.

How do you unwind?
We own about four hundred acres above the Mississippi River near Prairie Du Chien and it is a wonderful place to unwind.

Where or when were you happiest?
I am very fortunate to have had a happy life—now is the best.

What do you wish you could tell your twenty-year-old self?
Things will work out okay!

Who’s been your greatest inspiration?
My mother.

Describe yourself in three words.
Pleasant, hard working and optimistic.

If you could change one thing about Madison, what would it be?
The weather.

What’s one place you’ve never been but would like to visit?
Alaska.

What’s surprised you lately?
The low level of politics on the national level.

What should everyone try once?
Run for political office—something I never have done or intend to do.

Marygold Melli taught family, juvenile and criminal law at UW, laying the groundwork for the school’s family law concentration. She was part of a team whose work on child support reform in Wisconsin became a national model, and the Legal Association for Women gives out an award in her name to recognize contributions to women in the law. Last summer, the American Bar Association named her one of five women who have excelled in the legal field and paved the way to success for fellow female lawyers.

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