Community activist, loving patriarch, valued friend
Dexter D. “Jim” Merrill, a resident of Claremont, died peacefully in his sleep with his wife Mary Jane and his daughters at his side early on the morning of April 21, 2017. He was 90 years old.
He was born in Seattle, Washington on August 15, 1926 to Harold and Marguerite Merrill. The family moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1931. He attended school in Lancaster, graduating in the class of 1944, and enlisted in the US Naval Air Corps during World War II. Following his service, he attended Franklin and Marshall College, graduating in 1949 with a degree in chemistry.
In September of 1948, Jim married his high school sweetheart, Mary Jane Spotts. He began his career with E.I. Dupont de Nemours & Co. in technical sales. The family moved around the United States for about 15 years, settling in Claremont in 1965.
Following the move to Claremont, Mr. Merrill became a community activist, chairing, along with his wife, many local political campaigns. He was on the Claremont Planning Commission and was elected to the Claremont Unified School District Board of Education, serving from 1977 to 1981. He also served on the boards of Pilgrim Place and the Friends of the Seniors at the Jocelyn Center. In 1996, Jim and Mary Jane were chosen as Grand Marshalls for the Fourth of July Parade.
“Jim’s life brought light to his community and to his many friends. He had an amazing capacity for remembering the little details of your life and warmly making everyone feel comfortable and cared for,” Robert Ring, MD, wrote. “I had the great privilege to interact with Jim for over 40 years and in that time he seemed immune to aging, as he and Mary Jane maintained a central presence in the life of the community. Jim lived a life of integrity and basic decency—an example of the best of the individuals from ‘America’s Greatest Generation.’”
Dr. Ring’s wife Diann agreed.
“Jim Merrill was the epitome of what it means to be a pillar of the community. For more than 50 years in Claremont, he was just always there to do what he could to be of help to his family, his friends, his church and his town,” Ms. Ring said. “Jim also liked to play and have fun. I know that I am not alone in forever remembering that special twinkle in his eyes.”
Following his retirement from the DuPont Co., Mr. Merrill dived even deeper into community affairs, joining the board of directors of the University Club and serving on many committees at the Claremont United Church of Christ. One of these was the pastoral search committee that resulted in the hiring of Butch Henderson, who served as CUCC’s senior pastor for many years.
Mr. Henderson, who’s known Mr. Merrill for more than 30 years, describes him as “a paradoxical human being.”
“He was one of the most interesting persons I’ve ever met, because he was so interested in other people. Talking to him always made me feel like he deeply cared about me and my ideas about life. He spoke by listening and questioning, which was beautiful,” Mr. Henderson said. “And he gave leadership in everything I shared with him. He gave leadership through support.”
Mr. Henderson said that the sense of paradox extended to Mr. Merrill’s physical being.
“He was a big man, a tall man, but also the gentlest kindest man you’ll ever meet. All those years, whether he was seated or standing, he was always at least a head above everyone else in the same place of the sanctuary,” he shared. “Jim always sat in the same place to my left and about 17 or 18 rows back. I always knew he was there. He was a person of presence, and that’s what that symbolized to me.”
Zoe TeBeau is another of the many friends Mr. Merrill made in the City of Trees. “I loved Jim’s friendship, his voice and that unbelievable smile—and how he always called it as it is, and shared that insight,” she said.
Perhaps finding prose too limiting when it comes to describing Mr. Merrill, another friend, Dan Peterson, wrote a haiku as tribute to this hardworking and well-liked man: “You, gentle present/Smiling eyes lighting the room/Deep voice bringing calm.”
Mr. Merrill was preceded in death by his daughter, Linda Fischer. He is survived by his wife, Mary Jane; by his daughters, Nancy Merrill Erbin and her husband Joe Erbin, Susan Merrill Norman and her husband Jerry Norman and Julie Merrill and her husband Tom Robinson; by his son-in-law Mark Fischer; by granddaughters, Stefanie Fischer and her partner Corey White, Rosanna Robinson and her husband Nathan Reiss, Kyla and her husband Jerry Dalnes, Jenna and her husband Toby Jewett, and Emily Erbin; and grandsons, Jonathan and his wife Christy Fischer, Jesse Robinson and his wife Larrissa Heeren, Patrick Robinson and his partner Jennifer Grigsby, Jim Norman and his partner Alex Miller and Christopher Erbin and his partner Madeline Benoit. He also leaves great-grandchildren, Alexander Fischer, Andrew Fischer, Madalyn Jewett and Maya Robinson.
A celebration of Jim’s life will be held Saturday, May 20 at 3 p.m. at the Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 W. Harrison Ave. in Claremont, with a reception to follow.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be made to CLASP (Claremont After School Programs) at clasp4kids.org, the Claremont Museum of art (CMA) at claremontmuseum.org or Heifer International at heifer.org.