Remembering John Merrill

John Merrill on the ferry, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

John Merrill on the ferry, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Last Monday, I got a call from my parents that John, my closest friend from middle and high school had died while climbing a 14er in Colorado.  As the news articles came in, further details came to light…  His dog Oof survived the accident, the cause was a massive rockslide, and it was the same route where another hiker died two months ago.  Most tragically, his wife Delmy just found out the Friday before that she was pregnant.
This weekend, I attended a service in his honor at Asbury United Methodist Church in Arnold, MD.  I was asked to speak during the service and prepared a few words to explain John from my perspective.  I have shared those words again here as a tribute to John:

I’ve been John’s friend since we were in the 6th grade.  When I spoke at his wedding, I described the hiking trip we took when we were 17 years old, our first time driving more than an hour without our parents, and our first time backpacking without the supervision of our scout leaders or any other “grown-ups”.  Of course there were mishaps, such as losing the trail and having to bushwhack through a mountainside covered in Mountain Laurel, but we learned how rewarding it can be to lead your own adventures.

Getting ready to begin our backpacking trip in Virginia.

One such adventure became a tradition:  Over Christmas break during college, I convinced a few friends to celebrate the New Year by swimming in the Severn River.  The plan was to go to the beach behind Severn School, strip down to our swimsuits, jump into the water and get back out as quickly as possible.   It should come as no surprise that it was easy to convince John to participate.

Swimming on New Years Day.

Swimming on New Years Day.

Lastly, it would be incomplete to describe John without explaining his obsession with high places.   I could speak of our trip to the top of several volcanoes in Guatemala, but I would rather share in the story of a more modest high place.  Over Christmas break in 2004, John really wanted to visit a high point that he had researched, the highest point in Anne Arundel County.  If you are familiar with this area, I doubt you are imagining a majestic peak, but you might be thinking of a prominent hill with a nice oak tree.   Well, no; The high point of the county is the highest spot in a nearly flat area which is 100 yards from a minor road, about 200 yards from a cellphone tower and all of 300 feet above sea level.  It was right on the side of someone’s front yard.  We weren’t exactly sure we were on the exact highest point, but I was absolutely certain that we were trespassing.

John has always been obsessed with reaching high places professionally and personally.  I have always found the biggest reward for reaching high places were the clear views around me, but I think for John, part of the reward was the ability to see himself more clearly.

John, we will miss you, and we will remember you always, particularly in the highest and the wildest places of the world or the county.

(I should clarify that he went by “Johnny” to everyone except me and his immediate family; I met him before he switched his name.  I think he liked that I always called him John, as it was a reminder that our friendship started so many years ago.)

My tribute was just part of the many kind words shared by family and friends.  His mother started the celebration with a her memories of John, and an account of the accident.  She somehow managed to muster the strength to sing a duet with John’s brother David.   His cousin Amy Martelli expressed her admiration for John’s strength and the bond they shared as oldest siblings in their families.  Shawn Scout shared stories of the times they shared in the Boy Scouts, and Michael Weissman reflected on John’s role as a campaigner for several political campaigns.  Others filled in additional details of John’s life, including the memories of his role in the Peace Corps, and as a friend to so many.  John’s brother David Merrill finished the ceremony by sharing a few more kind words about his brother, before switching to song to celebrate his life.

One story by someone he campainged with on the Howard Dean campaign particularly stuck with me:  John was leading the campaigning for the northernmost district in New Hampshire where they were working to build grass-roots support by going door to door.  As it was winter, on many mornings they would wake up in their cabin to significant snowfall.  When everyone else had declared a snow day, John would simply grab the snow shovel, and start digging out the driveway.  At first, they tried to see how long they could wait before their conscience kicked in, but eventually, they learned that when John put on his boots and grabbed the shovel, it was a work day.

The ceremony was very thoughtful and moving, and it was warming to see the church absolutely filled with those who cared about him and wanted to celebrate his passion for life and his many accomplishments.

John pushing a stick into Lava on the Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala

John pushing a stick into an active lava flow on the Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala

Articles describing the accident:

8 Responses

  1. Jim Robinson says:

    It’s obvious John was a very special person to all who knew him. I’m so sorry you lost such a dear friend. It’s very hard to lose someone close to you. I know this hurt you very much and Sharon and I have been thinking a lot about you. Hang in there. Try to remember all the great times you had together and cherish those memories. Like I told Amy, hold on tightly to each other and the love you two have will pull you through. We love you. Dad and Sharon.

  2. Ingunn says:

    Beautiful tribute, Tom. We thought about you a lot this past weekend.

  3. Tom Gavin says:

    I remember John from taking my field biology class at Cornell about 10 years ago. This really makes me sad. He was a really nice guy, and so full of energy. My condolences go out to his wife and family.

  4. Phil says:

    Awesome stories and memories, Tom. Though I don’t know either of you, I’m very sorry we lost a man as good as John. Thanks for helping me learn more about him and respect him for what he was to you and manyothers. I only have El D left, and I’ll make sure I pay due respects to John on my way up (and, by God’s grace) down.

  5. David Merrill says:

    Tommy. Thank you for this beautiful display of Johnny’s life and your friendship together. It will be four weeks come this Sunday, it continues to be hard, but I I know Johnny lives in my heart and walks with all of us everyday. It is such a blessing to know that he had you as a friend. I know the joy you gave him and he gave you through life. was full of excitement and love. Let us keep in touch as a way to keep remembering Johnny and continue the friendship that you and he had. You are a great person, a true friend, and I and my family thank you for all you’ve done. I’ll call you soon!

    David Merrill

  6. Gib Fitzpatrick says:

    Hi, Tom –

    I just received my copy of the Severn alumni magazine and read about John’s death. I’m not sure if you’ll remember me, but I was a math teacher at Severn when you and John were in 6th grade. I’m so sorry to hear about the accident. Thank you for putting this up so I had the chance to learn about what an amazing guy John had become. I remember him as a serious math student with a quirky sense of humor and a gleam in his eye — doesn’t surprise me to learn that he ended up living life so adventurously. And I still have the gift he gave me when I left Severn — a poem he wrote, illustrated and framed titled “My Role Model is Leaving” — one of the most special things a student has ever given me. I wish I’d been able to know John as an adult, but I’m glad to know he had a friend like you. I hope you’re doing well.

    – Mr. Fitz

  7. Chris Gerns says:


    I live in England now and just received the Severn alumni magazine which mentioned John’s death. I started attending Severn back in 1992 for the 7th grade and remember John well. He was a very positive and likeable person. He was a good kid and your blog shows that he became a great man. I’m so very sorry to hear of his passing. Thank you for creating this blog. My sincere condolences to his wife, his family, and his good friends like yourself.


  8. Pam Schlotter says:

    Although years after meeting him (he worked for me at Mesa Verde National Park, CO) and he didn’t come to work one day. Long ago, but I have never forgotten Johnny.


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