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Vehicle director Mellon dies at 61

Leonard Mellon, director of the State Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, died Monday after suffering a massive heart attack at his home Sunday.

A jovial, overweight gourmet cook, Mr. Mellon, 61, often has been credited with opening up the Florida Highway Patrol to black people and other minorities and ending the long waiting lines for people seeking driver licenses.

He was appointed in 1984 to head the 5,200-employee agency, which oversees the issuance of auto tags, driver licenses and vehicle registrations as well as the Highway Patrol and auto emissions inspections.

Mr. Mellon inherited a department on the mend. In the 1980s, a number of top officials lost their jobs amid charges of travel abuses, falsified expense vouchers and other mismanagement.

Bob Butterworth, a former Broward County sheriff and judge, was appointed to take over the scandal-plagued department in 1982. When Butterworth was elected attorney general in 1986, Mellon was named by then-Gov. Bob Graham and the Cabinet to head the agency.

A former Coral Gables attorney, Mr. Mellon was director of the Citizens Crime Commission of Greater Miami when he took over the department.

He kept his job despite a number of controversies, including a public move to unseat him when he opposed efforts of the Police Benevolent Association to take a broader role in decision-making at the Highway Patrol.

His efforts to promote more women, black people and Hispanics rankled many of the patrol's "good ol' boys" but drew praise from other state officials and minority groups.

Mr. Mellon also drew praise from women's groups in 1986 when his agency became the first in Tallahassee to establish a day-care center adjacent to the department. Three years later the department established a work-site kindergarten, another first.

In recent months Mr. Mellon had adopted an unusually low profile as Gov. Lawton Chiles and some legislators sought to abolish his agency and divide its departments among other state agencies.

In legislative hearings, it was Deputy Director Fred Dickinson who responded to questions on the possibility of abolishing Highway Safety. Cabinet aides said Monday they expect Dickinson to fill in as acting director until the governor and Cabinet name a replacement.

Mr. Mellon's wife, Lee, and daughter, Amanda, were with him when he was pronounced dead shortly before 5 p.m. Monday at Tallahassee Community Hospital.

A native of Pittsburgh, Mr. Mellon earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Florida State University, where he once was detained by deputies for trying to crash the color barrier at an all-black restaurant.

"The local sheriff didn't want whites in black establishments or vice versa," recalled an old friend.

He obtained an international law degree from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a law degree from Georgetown.