Mike Mekonnen’s death brings to an end a relationship with this city that began when he arrived here from his native Ethiopia in 1967. From that time until he died June 30 following a heroic fight against lengthy illness, Mekonnen had based his existence on hard work, public life and his family.
Mekonnen was 67 when he died.
He began his work life in Chelsea at the American Biltrite plant that was located behind Marginal Street. American Biltrite at the time was owned by the Bernstein Family, whose roots here went back to the turn of the 20th Century, to a three family home at the top of Bellingham Hill. It was the largest employer in the city when Mekonnen was hired.
The Bernsteins hired Mekonnen as a lineman in the sprawling plant, which moved down South 25 years ago. He remained there from 1967-1974 and got his feet on the ground in the new land.
From his very beginnings in this city, Mekonnen was a tireless worker and someone who was going somewhere. He wanted to succeed in his new home and so it was inevitable that he’d rise to a position of prominence and influence.
The Chelsea he came to know during his first decade here was a city going into the ground. The housing stock was old and an entire ward of it – Ward 2- was decrepit. Industry and residents were leaving, and then came the Chelsea Fire of 1973 which changed the fate and the direction of the city.
In such a place Mekonnen flourished.
He began buying property. He managed property for others. He ran a security agency and just before 1980, he put his political acumen to work and got himself elected to the city council.
Mekonnen was the type of Chelsea resident who took an interest in law and order as well as property and quality of life conditions. He founded NAB – Neighbors Against Blight when he lived in the Orange Street area of the city.
As the head of NAB he was out day and night in his automobile with a two way radio calling the police when he discovered something that wasn’t right.
To those who came up against him, he was a formidable fighter capable of holding his own space as well as countering with his own sense of implied justice.
“He was no pushover when he was younger,” said Councillor Leo Robinson, one of those who knew Mekonnen from the time he arrived here.
At city hall Mekonnen was able and willing to throw many a meeting into a topsy turvy kind of event. He was emotional. He was fiery. He was fearless when it came to expressing his point of view.
He was one of the very few who came here in 1967 and who played a part and a major role in the redevelopment of this city and who witnessed it first hand and up close fall into the ground, go into receivership, come out of it and move to a much better place such as we find it today.
Over the years, Mekonnen mellowed and the quintessential outsider came inside.
He moved to a big house on County Road and became a bit of a diplomat during the past 10 years.
“Working with Mike came to be a pleasure,” said City Manager Jay Ash. “We had our disagreements but he always voted in recent years for what was best for the city,” he added.
“Above all, Mike Mekonnen loved Chelsea. He will be missed by all of us who worked with and who valued him as a friend.”
Mekonnen was a minority of one when he came here as a young man from Ethiopia. He thrived here in this immigrant city and to many an Ethiopian just arrived from Africa in Chelsea he extended a helping hand.
He was educated in Ethiopia at the American Institute. He also held a Bachelor of Science degree from Boston State College.
He leaves his wife Ernestine and his son Alexander and six sisters.