T H O M A S . M E S K I L L
The following feature story appeared in the campus publication Mosaic in December, 1997.
Thomas J. Meskill, Jr. '50
Rising to the top in the world of politics and jurisprudence
The rough-and-tumble world of politics is one with which Thomas J. Meskill, Jr. '50 is intimately acquainted. When Connecticut's former Republican governor was nominated for a seat on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 1975, his lack of legal experience caused the American Bar Association (ABA) to oppose his nomination vigorously. The ABA and other groups even enlisted the support of the AFL-CIO, Meskill says.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, John M. Bailey, chairman of both the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic State Central Committee, called George Meany, president of the powerful labor union, and asked him to refrain from joining the opposition. Bailey told Meany, "you'll like this guy," Meskill reported Bailey later told him. Meskill was confirmed, and in 1983 he received an award from another lawyers' group, the American Trial Lawyers Association, for his "exemplary" service on the bench.
In acknowledging his recognition by the legal profession, Meskill simply says, "If I didn't think I could do the job, I wouldn't have accepted it." He contends that this anecdote illustrates "how people in politics, even when they've been your opponent over the years, are very decent when it comes to a knock-down, drag-out fight over something that they think is fair." It also illustrates Meskill's stature in politics. He initially entered politics after graduating from law school to establish himself as an attorney. He soon discovered that "it's easier to get into politics than it is to get out." After serving as a mayor, congressman, and governor, Meskill today enjoys senior or semi-retired status on the second-highest court in the nation. The New York City-based court interprets laws and precedent in federal cases originating in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont. At the age of 69, he has no plans to step down any time soon from a job that he continues to find very challenging and interesting.
Born into a family in New Britain, CT headed by a politically active father, Meskill enrolled at Trinity planning to become a physician. However, his pre-med plans were derailed at an early stage. "I found dissecting a fetal pig in biology lab pretty hard to take," he recounts.
Meskill remained a science major and sampled other courses offered in Trinity's liberal arts curriculum. "I remember I had Assistant Professor George B. Cooper for history. He was dynamic. Assistant Professor John E. Candelet taught economics. I thought that was tremendous. I also took a course in appreciation of fine art with Instructor in Fine Arts Mitchel N. Pappas which I remember to this day. When I go into a museum and see a Tintoretto or even a work by a lesser-known artist, I remember the slides Pappas would show in class. When I graduated, I knew a little about a lot of things. That's a good liberal arts education."
After graduating from Trinity, Meskill served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War and was discharged as a first lieutenant in 1953. He enrolled at the University of Connecticut Law School, served as the editor of the Law Review in his senior year, received his law degree in 1956, and returned to New Britain to practice law.
Meskill's history as a candidate is testimony to his political mettle. He first ran for public office in 1958 when he made a bid for the state senate. It failed. The following year, he ran for mayor of New Britain and was defeated by 116 votes. In 1962, he again ran for the mayoral seat and won, unseating the Democratic incumbent. In April of 1964 he lost his bid for reelection and later that year was defeated in the Sixth District Congressional race. Undeterred, he again ran for Congress and in 1966 survived a Democratic sweep in the state. He won reelection two years later. When elected governor in 1971, he was the first Republican in 16 years to hold Connecticut's gubernatorial seat.
"When I came into office we had some really horrendous financial problems," Meskill says of the $260-million deficit he inherited. By 1973, the deficit had been erased and the state treasury had a surplus of $65 million. Under Meskill's tenure, the Department of Environmental Protection was created and a state lottery system was instituted - his answer to a state income tax. Trinity recognized his extraordinary service to the state and awarded him - the College's only graduate to hold Connecticut's top elected office - an honorary degree in 1972.
Meskill attributes much of his success in life to chance. "A lot of my life was semi-accidental," he demurs. Even Trinity played a somewhat unexpected - if indirect - role in his political life. He recollects how in 1966, Stephen Minot, a professor of English at Trinity, ran as an Independent candidate against him in the Sixth District Congressional race. Meskill won the seat, in part, because many Democrats abandoned their party's candidate and instead voted for the Trinity professor, thereby increasing Meskill's winning margin. "Trinity may have had a bigger role in my success, even if unintentional!" Meskill quipped.
-- Suzanne Zack