John R. Merrill, who inspired generations of students spanning more than three decades as chair of the music department at Gilman School, died March 28 at his Roland Park home from complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 83.
"John was one of the most gifted teachers and admired human beings we had on the faculty," said Redmond C.S. Finney, who headed Gilman School for 24 years before retiring in 1992. "He was a special person, a gifted teacher and a fine gentleman."
Christopher Rouse, the Pulitzer Prize-winning and internationally known composer, was a student of Mr. Merrill's at Gilman, and recalled him as "a friendly person and a gentle man."
"He was a person of enormous generosity of spirit and sensitivity," said Mr. Rouse, a Mount Washington resident who graduated from Gilman in 1967.
Ted Libbey, former New York Times music critic and author of "The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music," graduated from Gilman in 1969. He called Mr. Merrill a "tremendous influence."
"He was a great teacher who changed my life," Mr. Libbey said.
John Ronald Merrill was born and raised in Baltimore, the son of Francis Robert Merrill Sr., a Shell Oil Co. accountant, and Evelyn Marie Miles Merrill, a homemaker.
A City College graduate, he attended the Peabody Conservatory of Music. He studied the organ and obtained bachelor's and master's degrees there.
He served in the Army as an assistant chaplain and organist. Afterward, he directed church choirs at St. John's United Methodist Church in Hamilton, Memorial Episcopal Church on Bolton Hill and Second Presbyterian Church in Guilford.
In 1962, he joined the Gilman School faculty. He taught classes including music history and music theory and composition. As music department chair, he expanded courses to include instrumental music, words and music, and 20th century music.
"He uniquely transformed Gilman's music program and uplifted it, and made it special for all participants," said Mr. Finney, a resident of Upperco.
"As a teacher, he was greatly loved and respected by every one of his students," he said. "He was a true friend and wonderfully supportive of so many teachers and students. Love emanated from John, and it was returned to him."
Charles B. Duff, a developer and planner who is president of Jubilee Baltimore Inc., is a member of Gilman's Class of 1971 and was a student of Mr. Merrill.
"He opened my ears to music. I had always thought that classical music was slow and boring," recalled Mr. Duff, a Bolton Hill resident. "He unlocked something I didn't know I had. You can't thank a person like that enough."
"I know the term 'master teacher' is over used frequently, but John was 100 percent a master teacher. He took his job very seriously and was always generous with his time," said Carey M. Woodward, who taught English at Gilman for 35 years before retiring in 2001. "He was serious about his work, but fun loving and had wonderful relationships with a lot of kids who were effected by his teaching and engagement."
Mr. Libbey recalled being a ninth-grader taking Mr. Merrill's music appreciation course. One day his teacher played a piece of music by Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn.
"For a week he was playing lively, easy-going stuff like Haydn and when we moved on to Beethoven we knew we were in over our heads," he said. "He put on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and dropped the needle between the transformative third movement to the finale of the fourth — where all hell breaks lose with the orchestra."
"That 30 seconds changed my life. It was a transformative moment and a whole new world instantly opened up to me," he said.
Mr. Libbey went on to become music critic for the old Washington Star.
"One day a note showed up in the newsroom from John complimenting me on my position, and on it he had written, 'I won't be happy until you are music critic for the New York Times.' I thought, 'right,' but three years later when The Star folded in 1981, I did go to The Times," he said.
He then received a postcard from Mr. Merrill stating: "Now, I'm happy."
"John always continued to follow his kids," said Mr. Libbey, who is currently communications manager for the PBS Foundation. "He followed up on what we did."
Mr. Merrill was in the audience in 2012 when Mr. Rouse's "Symphony No. 3" — which the composer had dedicated to him — was performed at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
He was patron of the Gilman Music Club, which had been founded by Messers. Rouse and Libbey, and also directed the Gilman Glee Club and the Traveling Men, the school's a capella group.
"He was a patient person — what that man had to put up with was just incredible," said Mr. Duff, laughing. "Out of 50 or 60, about a third of them could carry a tune in a bucket. He was unfailingly kind and made us think that we were good, and obviously overlooked our deficiencies."
Mr. Duff described his own musical abilities as not being "particularly strong, and that's why I needed John Merrill."
"He was conceivably the most private person I've ever known but was the best listener I've ever known," Mr. Duff said. "John had best friends who couldn't stand each other but loved him. He had the gift of listening more than anything."
Several years ago, a number of Mr. Merrill's former students gathered to honor him at a luncheon. Mr. Libbey was asked to say a few words about their beloved teacher and evoked the school's motto.
"The Latin motto is 'In Tuo Lumene Lumen' — in thy light we shall see light," he said. "That perfectly describes how we felt about John Merrill."
Mr. Merrill was a longtime resident of West Melrose Avenue, which allowed him to walk to school. He retired from Gilman in 1996.
He suffered the effects of Parkinson's disease which took away his ability to play the organ.
"He was the model of heroism," Mr. Duff said. "When I mentioned a support group for people with Parkinson's, he said, 'I'm dying with it.' He was a brave man."
A memorial service for Mr. Merrill will be held at 10 a.m. April 29 at Gilman School, 5407 Roland Ave.
He is survived by four nephews and two nieces.