BANGOR, Maine — Delmont “Del” N. Merrill, a former president of Husson College, member of the Maine Sports Hall of Fame and well-known Down East blueberry grower, died Monday. He was 84.
Merrill, of Ellsworth, was president of what is now Husson University from 1978 to 1987. He worked in various capacities at the school for 34 years before retiring to run the family business, Merrill Blueberry Farms in Hancock.
Merrill died with his family at his bedside at a Bangor hospital, according to Julie Green, spokeswoman for Husson.
A native of Ellsworth, Merrill was a flame thrower for the 5th Marine Division in World War II and one of the thousands who stormed the beach on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. He also was one of the few to leave that battlefield unscathed. Out of the 18 in his squad, just three survived, Merrill said in a 1997 interview.
“I don’t have a clue [how I survived],” he told the Bangor Daily News in 2006. “Somebody must have been watching over me. I remember a war journalist writing that running across the beach at Iwo Jima was like trying to run 100 yards through a rainstorm without getting wet. It was so intense. How anybody got across the beach, I don’t know.”
The current president of Husson, along with politicians and business leaders from around the state, praised Merrill’s ac-complishments, his leadership and his philanthropy.
“Our community is saddened today by the loss of former President Del Merrill,” Husson University President Robert Clark said in a press release. “Those who knew Del and worked with him spoke to me of his dedication, his patriotism, his love of his family, and his commitment to Husson. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who worked at Husson before being elected to the Senate in 1996, described Merrill’s passing as “a tremendous loss to the Husson community and to the state of Maine.”
“He made a positive difference in the lives of so many Mainers through his lifelong commitment to education and his lead-ership as president of Husson for several years,” Collins said. “As president of Merrill Blueberry Farms, the company founded by his family, he was also a leader in Maine’s blueberry industry. Those who knew Del also know how proud he was of his commitment to our country, serving as a dedicated Marine during World War II.”
To U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe and former Gov. John R. McKernan Jr., Merrill was a “wonderful friend and a truly re-markable educator and businessman.”
“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Del Merrill, whose lifelong commitment to our great state of Maine will reverberate for many years to come,” the couple said in a statement issued from Snowe’s office. “As president of what is now Husson University, Del literally transformed countless lives — not only of the students who passed through Husson’s vener-able doors during his extraordinary tenure, but indeed all of those since as he will be long remembered for ushering in a new era at Husson that formed a strong foundation for what the university is today.”
Merrill was in the audience last May when Snowe delivered the commencement address at Husson.
“Time and again, Del made limitless contributions to Maine, our country, and the greater good that will forever remain an inspiration and example to us all,” Maine’s senior U.S. senator said.
Officials at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth on Tuesday remembered Merrill as a supporter and friend. Merrill and his wife, Betty, donated a chapel to the hospital and more recently Merrill served as chairman of the business committee for the hospital’s emergency center capital campaign.
“The entire hospital family is saddened to learn of the passing of our friend Del Merrill,” said Becky Sargent, vice chair-man of the hospital’s board. “Del was an integral part of this community and our hospital. He will be deeply missed.”
Merrill graduated from the Bangor Maine School of Commerce, the precursor of Husson College, in 1948 with a business education teacher diploma. He taught and coached at Sullivan High School and Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan. At those schools, he led his teams to a combined 156-56 mark in baseball, girls basketball and softball, according to a Bangor Daily News story published in 1997.
He returned to Husson in 1953 to teach. The next year, he became the first candidate to qualify for a Bachelor of Science degree at the college. Before becoming president, he worked as a professor, athletic director, administrator and coach.
At Husson, he coached baseball and basketball and is credited with building the school’s athletic department. He also served as state basketball commissioner. Merrill was inducted in 1997 into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame.
He credited his years of coaching as good preparation for being a college president.
“Being a coach and athletic director did more to develop my leadership qualities than anything I could have done,” he told the Bangor Daily News in 1981. “In coaching I had to deal with all kinds of people at all levels and age groups. Then, I had to size up their potential.
“Teamwork goes way beyond athletics,” he added. “No matter what the endeavor, you have to work together to accomplish the ultimate goal,”
His baseball record at Husson consisted of 195 wins, 82 losses, seven National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics playoff selections, eight league championships, a New England championship in 1973, and NAIA District (New England) Coach of the Year in 1968, 1969 and 1973.
In basketball, his teams won 197 and lost 86. They gained seven league championships and two state small college crowns. His overall record for high school and college coaching was 548-224, according to the BDN.
“Coaching tempers you a little for the difficult decisions that have to be made in administration. You learn to size up the situation and possibly make a little quicker decision than you might ordinarily,” he once said.
During his presidency, Husson initiated the nursing program, the first master’s degree program in business and the first international program, known as the International Center for Language Studies.
Merrill is survived by children Colleen, and her husband, Jim Russell; Linda and her husband, Robert Sparks; and Bob Merrill and wife, Susan. He was predeceased by his wife of 57 years, Betty Ann Merrill.
A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Jordan-Fernald Funeral Home, 113 Franklin St., Ellsworth.
Bangor Daily News writer Bill Trotter and Dave Barber contributed to this report.