When Barry Morrison and Frank Meeink first met in 1995, both men were anxious.
Morrison, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia office, did not want Meeink to come to his office, not surprising given that Meeink, a former skinhead who had only recently been released from prison, had brutally beaten people in the past and regularly celebrated Hitler’s birthday.
But Meeink, who had served one year for kidnapping and beating a rival gang member, had been shaken by the Oklahoma City bombing and what hate could make people do and was looking to turn his life around. He told his entire story to an FBI agent, who advised him to contact the ADL.
Meeink and Morrison met in the lobby of a hotel in Center City and Morrison brought a bodyguard with him.
During a joint interview last week in the ADL office, the two men laughed when they recalled Morrison bringing protection to that first meeting.
“I didn’t know what to expect and I just thought it would be better to have a little cushion for safety,” Morrison said. The bodyguard was, in fact, just a large ADL board member.
What made Morrison eventually trust Meeink?
“I don’t remember if he was crying, but he certainly gave evidence of being very sincere. In this business, I’ve learned to trust people but also to be wary,” he said.
Meeink is now a married father of five, sober after years of addictions, and living in the Midwest. He still has sleeves of tattoos but also now sports a full head of hair.
In addition to delivering speeches for ADL around the country, he now helps lead organizations such as Harmony Through Hockey, which brings the sport to children who otherwise could not afford it. He recently had his book, Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, optioned for a movie.
He was back in Philadelphia this month to speak at the National Museum of American Jewish History and other venues.
The two men appear to have developed a father-son sort of relationship, with Morrison smiling and offering a “here-we-go-again,” sort of look when Meeink was late for the interview. The ADL once had to cancel a series of Meeink’s speaking engagements in California because he had been arrested at the Philadelphia airport for trying to bring an unlicensed firearm through security.
Meeink credited Morrison,who is preparing to retire at the end of the year, for his evolution from neo-Nazi gang member to family man. When asked what the ADL leader had meant to him, Meeink jokingly asked, “In front of him?”
After Morrison offered to step outside the room and Meeink shook his head, the former gang member said the ADL official made him realize that the men he once viewed as “suburban and lame” are, in fact, the real “hard guys, who take their kids to the movies and don’t go to the bar.”
“I had to change the people I looked up to, and Barry — the way he handled himself and dealt with other human beings — that was huge for me,” Meeink said.
The first speech Meeink delivered for the ADL was to Morrison’s daughter’s seventh-grade class in Upper Merion in 1995. Meeink thought the presentation had gone terribly and binged on drugs for a week before Morrison gave him a package of letters from the class thanking him for coming.
“When I looked up from the stack of notes, I was crying again,” Meeink wrote in the book. “Barry was beaming like a proud papa.”
For his part, Morrison recalled, “I saw him mostly as a vehicle to educate people, particularly young people, about the evils of bigotry.”
Their relationship has had its share of trials.
Meeink said Morrison was the first person to whom he confessed about being an alcoholic. (In the book, he explained that the confession came after the ADL received a $500 bill for liquor from the mini bar of a hotel in San Diego. The ADL did not pick up the tab.)
“We were sitting in your old office,” Meeink recounted during the recent interview. “And I said, ‘I think I’m an alcoholic.’ I always joke about this but I thought I was going to get a Barry lecture, you know, ‘Stop drinking,’ and he didn’t. He shared a personal story” about a friend “and that was huge for me.”
In his effort to get clean, Meeink said he has relapsed several times since being released from prison, but he’s now sober. He’s been married for 12 years to a woman whom he and Morrison both said is “amazing.” Meeink noted that she’s a bigwig in finance and added that she’s “totally gorgeous, don’t know how I got her.”
Meeink also said he now plays a significant role in the lives of four of his five children, three of whom come from other relationships. (One mother has since married, and Meeink has little contact with their son, but he said the child is in a good situation.)
Despite no longer repeating his own mistakes or those of the adults he grew up around — who Meeink said were “cowards” because they relied on drugs and fights and left their children to fend for themselves — Meeink acknowledged that he still thinks like a criminal. For example, he said, he knows the time when an armored truck visits a gas station near his house each day.
“That’s not something a normal person thinks about,” he said, but added that these days he doesn’t act upon that knowledge.
Morrison commended Meeink for not returning to the hate-filled world of gangs, a mistake he has seen others like him make.
Meeink does not exclude himself when he says that his former life was full of “egomaniacs with no self-esteem.”
Morrison submitted that “someone who turns to a hate movement — there is a void internally and you have a need to fill it. Frank has found people who care for him and nurture him, and that’s filled the void.”