“Dynamite comes in small packages,” Manuel Melendez Jr. liked to tell his kids.
That’s what the 5-foot-6 amateur boxer, printer and community activist would say when one of them had a tough day at school and, later, before job interviews when they were adults.
The saying, which helped them build confidence, could also be used to sum up Melendez’s impact on his family, neighbors and St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, said daughter Mary Jane Melendez.
“He was a fighter for the good and protector,” she said.
Melendez, who was born in St. Paul to Mexican immigrant parents, died Feb. 7 at age 82.
At age 9, he won a citywide marble championship and soon started a collecting habit that endured into his years of retirement.
Melendez’s many collections included old bottles, clay marbles from the 1800s and buttons from each year of the St. Paul Winter Carnival. As an adult, he loaned his postcard collection of St. Paul and Minnesota landmarks to the Minnesota Historical Society for display, his daughter said.
Melendez started boxing as a teen and joined St. Paul’s Golden Glove team in the 1950s, winning the flyweight division for boxers 112 pounds and under, said former teammate and friend Denny Nelson.
Melendez’ boxing style rallied the crowd, said Nelson, a retired professional referee.
“He was a puncher. A crowd pleaser. He was a short guy and he’d come plowing in and punched away,” Nelson said.
“Not everybody can be a boxer. But you meet some good people, and he was one of them,” he said.
Melendez later became a Golden Glove referee and served as director of the local amateur boxing program, Nelson said. In 1994, St. Paul’s Mancini’s Char House and Lounge added Melendez to their Sports Hall of Fame, and his photo hangs on a wall honoring local athletes.
Melendez enlisted in the U.S. Army as a young man and served for about a year before he was honorably discharged for medical reasons. He had an enlarged heart, his daughter said.
As a father, Melendez dedicated himself to his family’s Frogtown neighborhood and advocated to create Ryan Park in an area that lacked green space.
“He was a fierce champion for the community of Frogtown. I remember him when I was little always pulling neighbors together to help ensure that the streets were safe, that kids had a place to play,” his daughter said.
He also served as a coach at the West Minnehaha Recreation Center, where he shaped hundreds of kids’ experiences in baseball, basketball and football.
He would often bring players whose parents worked two jobs home with him to have dinner at the Melendez home, his daughter said.
“That kind of just became part of the family and part of the norm,” she said. “Instead of setting a table for six, my mom would be setting a table for nine.”
The family also opened their home to care for several adults with disabilities for more than a decade.
“He said it was important for us to be attentive to the needs of others, and that was a very powerful way to have that as part of your home and upbringing,” Mary Jane Melendez said.
Melendez worked as a printer at Sexton Printing for many years, before joining the company’s human resources department and retiring in 2004.
Melendez is survived by his wife, Patricia; his children Mary Jane, Anne, Manny and Lori; his sisters Patty Hyatt, Jane Hauge and Dolly Melendez, and two grandchildren. Services have been held.