Merrill, Ralph D. Jr.
by Mary (Merrell) Whitaker
Ralph Dodge Merrill, Jr. was born September 1, 1914, in San Francisco at Children’s Hospital to Anne Hart Meherin Merrill and Ralph Dodge Merrill Sr., who was Vice President of Holbrook, Merrill and Stetson Plumbing Company.
Ralph attended grade school in Hillsboro, California. In his teens his parents divorced, and his mother moved to Oakland where Ralph attended St. Mary’s. His asthma was a major problem so his uncle, J. J. Meherin, suggested he move to Alaska to see if the climate there would be better for his health. Ralph arrived in Juneau, September 1, 1930, on his 16th birthday. His Aunt Becky (Stella Meherin) remarked, “I’m a bride of six months and the mother of a 16 year old boy.”
Ralph was active in all school sports and a cartoonist for the school newspaper and the yearbook, “Totem” which was published by Juneau High School students. He was also a yell 0leader for the Juneau High basketball team and president of the Senior Class of 1934.
July 4th of either 1933 or 1934, Ralph and Winston Goss swam across the Gastineau Channel at 10:00 a.m. They took to the water at the point near the cemetery and swam to Tury Float in Juneau. Aunt Becky greased him down with bear grease and Jim Cole and four other youngsters rowed beside them in case a rescue effort was needed.
In 1934, Ralph was visiting St. Ann’s Hospital because his friends had been in a plane crash. The plane was a Lockheed Vega and Walter Holmquist one of the passengers on the plane was killed in the crash. Among the injured were Tom Moyer, Gene Meyring, the pilot, (the engine landed in his lap) and Lloyd Jarman, the other pilot. Ralph asked his buddies if there was anything he could do for them and they said, “get rid of that damn bell.” The bell was rung everyday at 6:00 a.m. Ralph obliged by climbing the steep roof of St. Ann’s Church, removed the clapper from the bell and hid it. One of the lookouts was Ellen Mize, who later became Tom Moyer’s wife. The next day, the town of Juneau was stunned when the bell did not ring at the allotted time. Several days passed and not one person would tell who was responsible for this caper. Finally the Chief of Police, Roy Hoffman, paid a visit to the Joe Meherin residence. Ralph answered the door and said, “Oh, you must want to see my Uncle Joe,” and Roy said, “No, Ralph, it’s you I want to see, we need to talk about a little problem that involves the missing bell clapper from St. Ann’s Church.” Ralph admitted he was guilty of the prank and he took Roy to the place he had hidden the bell clapper. Well, two of Ralph’s friends, Dean Williams and George Folta, had stolen the clapper from its hiding place! After the clapper was found Ralph had to replace it, which was no easy task. It was winter and he had to climb up the high sloping roof. When he finally replaced the clapper, Roy yelled up to Ralph, “Ring the damn bell.”
During the summer break, Ralph worked on fishing boats and he always remembered one trip vividly. One solid week the crew never spoke a word of English, only Norwegian or they used sign language. When the trip was over Ralph was so disgusted that he packed his bag and quit. On his way down the gangplank, the Captain shouted in perfect English, “Where are you going, Ralph?” Ralph found out they had pulled one of the best jokes on him he had ever experienced, one solid week of silence to a man that loved to talk. Since Ralph loved jokes, he rejoined the crew for several more trips and had a ball.
Ralph also worked for his Uncle Joe and he lived above the store in an apartment. At nigh the would remove a vent in the apartment, drop down a fishing line and steal cookies or other interesting items. One night the fishing hook got caught in the cash register, his uncle caught him in the act and failed to see the humor in what Ralph had been doing, but at least it explained the missing merchandise.
Among Ralph’s other devious and mischievous bright ideas, was to cook a batch of pasta and place the hot pasta in the ice at Mendenhall Glacier. The pasta wiggled in the ice and he sold pieces of the ice to the tourists as “Alaska Ice Worms.” Business was lucrative until his aunt and uncle were informed and put an end to his money making scheme!
Ralph loved to fish and on one occasion he was to meet Doc Council. Doc told Ralph to wear hip boots, bring a fly pole and net and meet him in the middle of Juneau. Ralph stood there for hours waiting, but Doc never showed. He was the joke of Juneau that day and Doc thought it was really funny. Another time, Doc saw Ralph with a cigarette and knowing Ralph was told to stop smoking because of his asthma went over to talk to
him. Ralph saw him coming and put his hand in his pocket to hide the cigarette. Doc kept talking to him until he saw the smoke coming from his pants pocket and Ralph was caught again!
Ralph remained active in sports and was on the Juneau Ski Team which won the championship.
When war was declared, Ralph tried every branch of the service and was always rejected due to his asthma and heart murmur. One year he was accepted and he spent a month at the Presidio in San Francisco in bed with an asthma attack. He was given an honorable discharge. After his discharge he obtained a job with Morris-Knutson as a heavy equipment operator, building roads and runways for the Army. He worked on the roadway on Middleton Island, one mile wide and one mile long. He later worked on the Alcan Highway. Working in construction he also worked out of Fort Richardson in Anchorage and painted signs in the wintertime. He painted a totem pole for Anchorage Taxi. He painted one sign for a house of prostitution. When Ralph delivered the sign, the Madam asked the price and Ralph told her it was $50.00. The Madam was furious at the price and said, “Who in the hell is doing the screwing in this town, you or me?”
In Anchorage, several fellows, Ralph, Micky Jelsma, Russ Dow and Fritz Beckman formed the Anchorage Ski Club.
In November 1943, he was visiting his mother Anne Merrill in San Carlos, California. They traveled to Hollywood to have Thanksgiving dinner at the home of his aunt and uncle Mr. and Mrs. Sterling Paden. He met a woman by the name of Irene Aksamit that had also been invited to dinner. Ralph returned to Alaska resuming his work in construction and he wrote Irene daily. He would spend the winters in California. Finally, August 30, 1947, they were married in a garden wedding at his sister and brother-in-law’s house, Mary and Bill Whitaker.
Under a doctor’s order Ralph had to give up construction work. He was hired with Armour Meat Company and transferred to Stockton, California, as regional sales manager in 1949. He later worked as sales manager for Target Lighting and Alaska was part of his territory.
Ralph was always a sports fan and also an avid golfer. He was past president of La Contenta Golf Club where he made a “hole-in-one” November 19, 1986. He also possessed a Certificate of Life Membership, Prudhoe Bay Shrine Club.
Ralph and Irene have one daughter, Louanne Merrill Declusin and one grandson, Ryan Declusin. In 1983, Ralph, accompanied by his wife Irene, his daughter Louanne and his grandson Ryan, went to his 50th year class reunion at the Baranof Hotel which had been owned by his uncle, Joe Meherin. Ralph and his family were the guests of Dean and Edna Williams during their stay.
Later in life Ralph had five cancer surgeries, and after each surgery was soon back on the golf course or taking a trip to his beloved Alaska. With all his illness, he never lost his sense of humor or his love of Alaska. Ralph and Irene were married 42 years. He passed away May 17, 1989.
Ralph’s funeral was on May 22, 1989. I was waiting with hundreds of other mourners at the funeral home for the service to begin when I could feel Ralph looking down from above and saying, “Popular son of a bitch, wasn’t I?” He was buried with his golf putter and the Alaska Flag.
Ralph D. Merrill and Irene D. Aksamit wedding August 30, 1947, San Carlos, California.
Lou Taylor, Earl Berstline, Sonny Gray and Ralph Merrill.