Losing her military ID some 70 years ago turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to 91-year-old Doris Merrill, a disabled veteran who will represent the Paralyzed Veterans of America at a Veterans Day ceremony in Washington on Wednesday.
The Paralyzed Veterans chose the Nanticoke resident to represent the organization because she has served as an inspiration for other veterans with physical disabilities through her decades of organized athletic competition, professional endeavors and community service.
Her association with the military began in 1944, when the then 20-year-old Merrill was a serving as a transcriptionist in Cape May, New Jersey. She had joined the U.S. Navy as an opportunity for further education.
With a high security clearance, she was trying to make her way into the seashore town’s Admiral Hotel, which served as a covert military headquarters tracking every U.S. military ship globally.
Then this man, a U.S. Marine, wouldn’t let her in the building to do her job.
To make matters worse, Merrill ended up scrubbing floors as a consequence of not having her ID with her.
Later in the week, Merrill bought two sandwiches at the Salvation Army for 35 cents. She couldn’t eat the second one, so she turned and asked the person behind her if he wanted it.
Not only did Paul Merrill, the Marine who had berated her for not having her ID with her, take the sandwich, he asked her what she was doing that weekend.
“I’m going home to Pennsylvania,” she said.
“I’ve never been to Pennsylvania,” he said, “I should come with you.”
Merrill remembers calling her mother in Nanticoke all those years ago.
“I said to her, there’s a Marine that wants to come home with me for the weekend,” she said. “I don’t know if you would really want him to come.”
To her surprise, her mother was delighted to host a Marine for the weekend.
“Bring him home,” she said. “We have an extra bedroom.”
That, said Merrill, was the beginning of the best decision she had ever made in her life.
Less than a year later, on April 21, 1945, she married Paul Merrill, in a ceremony that she said was “like a parade.”
With about 20 attendants in the wedding party, the only vehicles available to transport them to ceremony were two hearses.
“There wasn’t any room for me to sit down,” she said. “So, I sat on the floor of the hearse.”
In that spirit, the nearly 92-year-old woman is making her way to Washington on Wednesday to lay a wreath at the World War II Memorial, representing the Paralyzed Veterans of America, during a Veterans Day ceremony.
The U.S. Navy veteran, who has used a wheelchair consistently since 1957, has competed in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games since 1999 when they were hosted in Puerto Rico. She competes in various events, including ramp bowling.
She feels displaying over 60 medals she has earned in those games unnecessary.
“I know that I won them,” she said. “That’s enough.”
Of her military service, Merrill said she was very grateful for the opportunity to serve her country.
The only woman working on a project which tracked the movement of Navy ships throughout the world, she said her military superiors treated her with kindness.
“In a man’s world, they treated me with great respect,” she said. “And, I in turn, did my job.”
Because of the high degree of security associated with the project on which she worked, she was precluded from mentioning it to anyone.
“You didn’t go home and talk about it,” she said.
Because of that she said, she became very good at listening.
Living in the barracks with other WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), she said found herself listening to the stories of others carefully, but not really able to share her own.
When the movie “The Hunt for Red October” came out in the 1990s, Merrill remembered getting the chills as she watched it in a theater.
“Someone talked,” she said, “not me.”
Passion for teaching
Having gone on to get both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Merrill spent many years teaching at Wilkes, Penn State and eventually Nanticoke High School.
She said she has never regretted one minute of it.
When teaching for the Greater Nanticoke Area School District, she needed assistance making her way to and from the school building.
“The football players helped me during basketball season and the basketball players helped me during the football season,” she said. “I have not one bad thing to say about any student that I ever taught. Their parents raised kind, courteous children.”
After her retirement from that district in the late 70s, she established a Wall of Fame in Nanticoke for athletes scoring over 1,000 points.
“It’s one of the accomplishments of which I am most proud,” she said. “I felt I was giving back.”
Although Merrill’s husband Paul died in 1982, it is evident that his memory is very much a part of her life.
Her home in Nanticoke is filled with photos of the man she called her best friend.
When she speaks of her children — Paul II (Pepper), Heather and Toby — she is quick to share a specific memory, describe their personalities and express gratitude for their presence in her life.
Pepper died last year, a great sadness for Merrill.
“I never realized how much he helped me,” she said. “Each day I realize more fully all that he had done for me, things I didn’t even know about.”
Merrill also has three grandchildren and three great grandchildren, all of whom she has a fun, positive relationship with.
Grandson Paul is accompanying her Wednesday, which she said he considers an honor.
Despite the fact that she has MS and her husband had a heart attack early in his life, her memories are not of illness, but of family.
“When we were with our grandchildren, we forgot,” she said. “We forgot we were sick, we forgot we were older. We made games out of everything from laundry to cleaning their room. They were working and they didn’t even realize it.”
Carol Hayes of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, sponsor of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, said she looked forward to meeting Merrill in person.
As one of the few remaining veterans of World War II, Hayes said Merrill embodies the courage and character which define military personnel.
“I know of her wonderful reputation and positive attitude from her participation in the games,” she said. “She has been the oldest competing athlete for several years in a row.”
Hayes said Merrill also will be honored at a Veterans Day breakfast where she will have a chance to meet several Washington dignitaries.
Merrill’s home is small, but her life is big.
On the wall, next to photos of family, is her photo with President George W. Bush and wife, Laura.
She speaks easily of her love for Penn State and of her friendship with the late Joe Paterno and his wife, Sue Paterno.
“Sue found out I was having a difficult time attending games,” she said, of Sue Paterno. “Right away, she got me a parking space very close to the stadium.”
She also remembers meeting award-winning actor Tom Hanks.
“I said ‘you starred in Survivor’,” she said. “He never corrected me.”
Hanks actually starred in a movie entitled “Cast Away.”
Merrill, though taking time for necessary rest, still remains active.
Involved in the Wyoming Valley Woman’s Club, she is looking forward to their selection of Woman of the Year this year.
When asked what her secret to such a long and robust life is, Merrill points to a plaque on the wall which greets visitors.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledging Him and he will direct your path,” said Merrill. “I believe that.”
Reach Geri Gibbons at 570-991-6117 or on Twitter @TLGGibbons