A great man named Merlin Dewing passed away this morning at the age of seventy-four. I was shocked and stunned, as Merlin was as young as they get, full of life and an interest in bettering the lives of others. There is a mix of grief and gratitude in me this week. Grief for his death and gratitude for a chance to get to know him in this last year of his life.
I met Merlin at Excelsior United Methodist Church where I’ve worked the past five years. My being assigned to youth and young adults, our paths didn’t cross all that much and so I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know Merlin until I started the church’s Men’s Book Club in February, 2009. When I started the group, I didn’t know who would show up or who would show up consistently or who would enjoy it. It was my first program aimed exclusively at adult men and I was nervous at whether or not it would succeed. Since its inception in February, attendance has been low, not everyone who comes one month continues to the next month, and there’s still a struggle to discover what’s needed to make this club grow.
Merlin was the only man who showed up from day one and who had never missed a meeting. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.
When he showed up the first night, I honestly had to play the, “I Know Your Name, I’m Just Not Going to Say It” Game. It’s the game I sometimes play with adults who I recognize at church but don’t know very well. My constituency, the youth group, is downstairs while the adults are upstairs and to make connections outside of youth and their parents, I have to make a concerted effort. So here came a man who I recognized by face but not name and as our first book discussion unfolded I not only learned his name but it soon became clear I’d been depriving myself of an excellent connection for years.
Merlin contributed so much to the Men’s Book Club. In order to be a close reader, I’m (unfortunately) a slow reader and I admired Merlin’s ability to read so quickly and yet simultaneously savor the story. At our meetings, he always had something of substance to say about the books we read. He recognized writers’ stylistic choices, how stories connected to other pieces of literature, and embraced new stories without hesitation (I’ll never forget how excited he was to finally read his first Stephen King novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and the way he was impressed by King’s writing and how it went against every stereotype he’d heard of the man’s macabre storytelling). Most importantly, Merlin knew how to connect the story on the written page to the stories of our lives.
While our reason to gather was to talk about books, I must admit a major contributor to my personal enjoyment of attempting to pull a handful of men together every third Tuesday of the month was my getting to hear a slew of fascinating personal stories from Merlin. The man had a million of them, never a dull one and always pertinent to the discussion at-hand. There were stories about business and tales of the military, stories of overcoming hardship and lore of local history, great jokes with great timing and touching love stories. When I was told Merlin passed away, I was upset with myself in the same way as was I was told my Grandma Phyllis died (the day before our first Men’s Book Club meeting back in February, to tie things together a little more tightly).
For years I’d meant to get Grandma’s stories down on paper or tape and barely scratched the surface on this goal. It was a missed opportunity I’ll never get back and not having her stories and the story of her life recorded as completely as possible – straight from her lips – is the pain I try to avoid most when I think of her these days. This feeling rose in me as I learned of Merlin’s passing because I remember clearly, every month, sitting there with a kid’s grin on my face as Merlin recounted story after story and thinking to myself, “I have to get with this man and write everything he says down.” I didn’t do that and it’s a regret I’ll carry with me.
Merlin chose last month’s book club selection, The Sweet Season: A Sportswriter Rediscovers Football, Family, and a Bit of Faith at Minnesota’s St. John’s University by Austin Murphy. He’ read it before and had high hopes this locally-focused pigskin tale smackdab in the middle of the football season would bring in more members and though we didn’t have a large group show up, Merlin lead the discussion with ease and enthusiasm. He chose Murphy’s book because he admired Gagliarti’s leadership style and we had a long talk about what it means to stand out from the crowd as a leader. Through an online search to read his obituary, I came across a business website Merlin was involved in and saw this quote from him splashed across the top of the page:
“Leaders should be measured not by how much they lead, but by how little they have to lead. Their success comes from knowing how to select and develop gifted people.”
~ Merlin Dewing
This attitude was reflected in how Merlin saw Gagliarti as coach in the book and in how Merlin contributed not only to what I personally witnessed in Men’s Book Club but also in what I saw in how he interacted with his church family, entreprenuership opportunities, and his marriage. Reading his obituary it was clear he was well-loved and well-respected with many accomplishments under his belt that I never heard about. Maybe that’s because I was downstairs with the youth group. But more likely, it’s because Merlin was humble and sought to build up others before he built up himself. I anticipate learning even more about him at his funeral this Saturday and while I’m grieving, this impending time of celebrating Merlin’s life leaves me with gratitude to have known him at all.
(Postscript – At Merlin’s funeral, there were indeed tales of his being humble and for as many wonderful stories as he told me about other people in his life, it was an absolute joy to hear so many wonderful stories about him. The man has done so much, including playing an integral part in keeping the Twins in Minnesota in the early 1980s, not that one would have heard about it from him.)
On December 15 the Men’s Book Club discusses The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Knowing how quickly Merlin could get through a book, our group will be left wondering if he finished, what he thought of Sebold’s style, and especially how he viewed the portrayal of the afterlife. I would have loved to hear what new stories he’d be able to relate to the novel, and I wonder if I would have finally made time to work with him on writing them all down.
Merlin Dewing was a man of character and he enriched the story of my life.