Remembering Merryman: Graduating Beacon editor reflects on interview with the late professor


Over the summer everyone was doing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It did not matter where you went, someone was taking the challenge to raise awareness and money for ALS. As it was all happening over the summer, Keystone College took the challenge to honor Dr. Nancy Merryman, who was a professor there. Keystone promptly challenged Wilkes University and Dr. Patrick Leahy to take the challenge in honor of Dr. Jim Merryman, a professor of Wilkes for many years. It was a huge success with faculty and staff coming together to honor such a beloved member of the Wilkes family.

Let me first say that I never got a chance to meet Dr. Merryman in person. I was only able to converse with him via email when writing a profile on his diagnosis last semester. His disease had already progressed so much that he only spoke at a “gravelly whisper.” However, in those few emails, I learned that Dr. Merryman was a special person who had a grasp on life that most of us only wish of having. I also had the privilege of speaking to his wife, his daughter, and one of his closest friends, Dr. Sid Halsor. Through those individuals I was able to get a better understanding of the kind of person Dr. Merryman was.

I am sure Dr. Merryman would second this when I say that he was surrounded by love and support. Hearing his wife and daughter talk with such strength during such a difficult time, was an inspiration in itself. Dr. Merryman’s daughter shared a story with me about how the nurses and doctors told the family not to look at his ALS as a death sentence, but to cherish each and every moment.

Another thing that Dr. Merryman’s wife shared with me is that although ALS is a terrible disease, it could be worse. For a family to carry such a light in a dark moment like that is truly what makes this family special. Although I only had those short interviews with them, I feel like I have known them for years.

After conducting all of the interviews with Dr. Merryman’s wife, daughter, and friends, I started to get emails from Dr. Merryman himself answering questions that I had sent him. As I mentioned before, this was the only way for me to communicate with him. I had sent him a list of about 12-15 questions, and each night Dr. Merryman would send responses to about 3-4 of those questions, at the end of each email, he would break from the “interview” and say that he had to take a break for the night.

By the last couple emails, I was waiting with eagerness to see what he had written. The way he answered my questions was as if we were talking face to face. There was a depth to him, and also such emotion and conviction in everything he did. This was a man that had done it all. He had worked in Africa with the Peace Corps and had travelled the world seeing the beauty in everything. I was just lucky enough to have been able to exchange a few emails with him.

While I was in “writing mode” writing this profile piece about Dr. Merryman, I wanted people to see that depth and emotion. Nothing I said would do it justice, so I used quotes from him, his family, and his friends. Anything I wrote was merely a transition from one quote to the next. After I completed it, a sense of worry came over me, because I wondered if Dr. Merryman would even like it.

After the print edition came out, that day, I sent an email to Dr. Merryman with the link to the article that I had worked on for the past two weeks. I eagerly awaited a return about his thoughts. In the meantime, I received a couple of emails from others saying they read the article, including President Leahy, but no one’s opinion was as important as Dr. Merryman’s.

The article that I wrote is one that I will not soon forget. It was a very special piece because of the people involved. They treated me with such respect and I will forever be appreciative of that. It is hard to put into words what this article means to me, because it was an article that was a true labor of love.

A couple weeks after the article was published, Dr. Merryman had emailed me asking what the reaction was to the article. I had told him it was nothing but positive, and I promised to forward him any and all fan mail, knowing that it would all be for him. I will still hold true to that promise in the off chance that there is still some that has yet to be mailed. However, there was one piece of fan mail I did keep for myself. Back in March, I learned that Dr. Merryman’s article had won a Keystone Press Award from the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association. I was so proud to have accepted that award because Dr. Merryman was receiving the recognition he deserved. So, Dr. Merryman, I dedicate that award to you.

In closing, it is hard to believe that I am finishing this year the same as I began it, writing about the incredible life of Dr. Jim Merryman. One thing I promised Dr. Merryman was that he could flip the tables on me and interview me like any good anthropologist. So, I say to you, Dr. Merryman, I look forward to that day when we can talk and share a good martini – shaken, of course.