In more than five decades as a fourth grade teacher at the Gilman School in Baltimore, William S. Merrick Jr. developed a variety of tricks to keep his students engaged.
He kept a bag of tennis balls and would throw a ball to a student who had to work a mathematical equation before returning the ball to the teacher. A student who misbehaved could escape trouble if he correctly defined a word Mr. Merrick tossed out.
“He had great ideas,” his wife, Linda Hults Merrick, recalled.
Mr. Merrick, a Gilman graduate who taught fourth and fifth graders at the private school for boys for 57 years, died July 21 at the Gilchrist Center in Towson of complications stemming from a car accident. He had celebrated his 87th birthday in June.
Former students and colleagues celebrated Mr. Merrick’s life and influence.
“Character development was just as essential to Bill Merrick’s teaching as academic learning,” Gilman graduate and former Lower School headmaster R. Leith Herrmann wrote in a tribute. “Respectful, kind, and always a gentlemen, he was a great role model in this regard too. Bill spent his entire career at Gilman — longer than any other teacher in the school’s history. His dedication was unparalleled. Hundreds of former students remember Mr. Merrick fondly and are grateful for the opportunity to learn from him.”
Mr. Merrick was the fourth of six children born to William Merrick Sr., a banker and president of the Greenway Apartments Co., and the former Helen McEvoy, a homemaker. The family hired a nanny to take care of the children in their home in the Woodbrook neighborhood in Towson, which allowed Mr. Merrick an opportunity to slip away to watch Westerns at what was formerly the Hampden Theatre in Baltimore.
“Without his parents’ knowledge, he would get on a streetcar and ride down to the Hampden to watch a movie and then get on a streetcar and ride back,” Mrs. Merrick said from her house in Lutherville. “And they never knew it.”
Mr. Merrick graduated from Gilman in 1951 and then Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1955. He served in the U.S. Navy as a seaman on the USS Wisconsin for two years before graduating from what was formerly known as Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) with a master’s degree in education in 1965.
Joining Gilman in 1958, Mr. Merrick began teaching fifth graders. John Schmick, who later became Gilman’s headmaster, said he attended Mr. Merrick’s history and geography classes as a fifth grader in 1959.
“He was very creative and very animated,” Mr. Schmick said. “His classes were always a lot of fun. He was also very demanding. He really taught you writing discipline. I remember that vocabulary was just always fun. He just had this wonderful way of teaching.”
Mr. Schmick said Mr. Merrick also engaged his students during recess, playing quarterback during touch football games.
“He always made sure that he threw to every boy,” Mr. Schmick said. “He made sure that every boy felt good about himself. Every boy had a chance.”
Mr. Merrick switched to fourth grade before agreeing to become the Lower School head for three years. But he asked to return to teaching fourth graders.
“He wanted to be with the boys rather than be stuck in an office taking care of problems,” Mrs. Merrick said. “He missed the aspect of teaching, and he missed the boys.”
One of Mr. Merrick’s hallmarks was employing a ukulele to teach his students the name of every country in the world. The song resonated with many of his students even after they had graduated from Gilman.
“A few years ago, I attended a Ravens game with four Gilman alumni,” former Gilman teacher Winn Cullen Friddell wrote. “As we were walking to the stadium, one of them asked, ‘Who was your favorite teacher?’ Another replied, ‘Mr. Merrick.’ There was immediate and unanimous agreement, and without any hesitation, all four launched into one of Bill’s famous rhyming Geography poems. Nobody missed a beat—no forgotten words throughout the entire rendition, some thirty years after they first learned it. When I later told Bill about the event, he brushed off the accolade with his customary humility. He only inquired as to their performance of the poem. I assured him, ‘They were in perfect unison and flawless. You would have been proud.’ ”
Mrs. Merrick, who was an administrative assistant in the Lower School when she and her husband began dating in 1989 before marrying on Aug. 11, 1992, said the couple encountered former students reciting his songs at restaurants and airports.
“He loved it,” she said of the students’ reactions. “He thought it was great because he made an impression and they remembered.”
Mr. Merrick, who enjoyed playing golf at the Elkridge Club and bridge, rarely missed a day of school. His only extended absence occurred in June 2011 after he was involved in a car accident en route to a Lower School graduation ceremony at Gilman and returned to the school in January. Complications from that accident forced Mr. Merrick to retire in 2015.
When Mr. Merrick retired after receiving the Edward K. Dunn Faculty Development Award, the May Holmes Service Award and the Edward T. Russell Memorial Faculty Chair, Gilman published a question-and-answer with Mr. Merrick and included some statistics and information in a baseball card-style form. Mr. Merrick taught more than 850 students, served seven headmasters, and favored turtlenecks as his clothing of choice.
Mr. Merrick was cremated. A memorial service at Gilman is being planned and will take place after coronavirus concerns have been addressed.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Merrick is survived by two children, William Merrick III of Essex, Connecticut, and Wendy Merrick Doak of Baltimore; three stepchildren, John Robert Frazier III of Wilmington, North Carolina, Elizabeth “Betsy” Frazier of Timonium and Gaelle DeJong of Normandy, France; three siblings, Charlton Merrick McLean of Baltimore, Samuel S. Merrick of Lutherville and Agnes Merrick of Hunt Valley; and eight grandchildren, who began calling him “Grumps” before changing it to “Grumpy.”