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In Memoriam: Thomas Merrill

Professor emeritus remembered as kind, talented colleague

Thomas F. Merrill, 89, of Telford, Pennsylvania, professor emeritus of English at the University of Delaware, died Jan. 15, 2021.

Thomas Merrill
Thomas Merrill in a 1982 photo

Dr. Merrill joined the UD faculty as an associate professor of English in September 1969 and held numerous leadership and service positions for the University, the College of Arts and Sciences and the English Department until his retirement in January 1995.

Widely recognized for his literary scholarship, he was the author of six books—including studies of poets Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson and examinations of the use of language in religious writing such as Paradise Lost—and more than a dozen articles that appeared in some of the discipline’s most prestigious journals.

He was awarded Fulbright grants to lecture in France and in Argentina, although he declined the latter because of war in the Falkland Islands. Dr. Merrill was a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in 1987-88 and a longtime editorial board member of the journal Connotations.

At UD, he served in many positions, including as vice president of the University Faculty Senate and on its executive committee; ex officio member of the Board of Trustees; senator with the College of Arts and Sciences Senate; board member of the University of Delaware Press; and on such committees as graduate and undergraduate studies, program evaluation and minority affairs.

He was granted emeritus status after retiring in recognition of his outstanding work in teaching, research and service.

Those who worked with Dr. Merrill remembered him as a talented scholar, a kind and generous colleague and a valuable member of the faculty who made friends easily.

Thomas Merrill, Ray Callahan, Carol Vukelich
Thomas Merrill, with Faculty Senate colleagues Ray Callahan and Carol Vukelich in 1986.

“Tom was one of my favorite colleagues: friendly, bright, witty and with lots of good ideas—literary, philosophical and departmental—and a dislike of academic pretension,” said Ronald Martin, professor emeritus of English, who said that he and his late wife, Barbara, often spent time with Dr. Merrill and his “bright and talented” wife, Mary. “Students liked him and were stimulated by his approach, especially his take on poetry of the 20th and 17th centuries.”

Jerry Beasley, professor emeritus of English, joined the faculty the same time as Dr. Merrill, who he said was “already a seasoned academic” and they and many other new arrivals had offices in an old house on South College Avenue.

“Proximity made for quick friendships, and Tom accumulated friends easily, as his manner was gentle and quiet,” Beasley said. “He was also a source of great support, a splendid model of kindness and accessibility and a generous mentor.

“Tom was also a former Fulbright scholar and a highly regarded literary critic who had the unusual gift of feeling completely at home in the very different worlds of 17th century British and modern American Beat poetry. He was the consummate professional, but he was also, and in every way, a special friend and colleague. Everyone who knew him will be saddened by the news of his death.”

D. Heyward Brock, professor emeritus of English and former senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also remembered Dr. Merrill as “a kind, gentle man” and a generous colleague.

“I never heard him utter an unkind word about anyone,” Brock said. “He had an acute ability to find and persuasively articulate the essence of an issue or an argument without offending any of the contending parties. All of us will miss his comforting presence and voice in this troubled world.”

About Thomas Franklin Merrill

Dr. Merrill was born in Orange, New Jersey, to the late Charles Earl and Anna Matilda (Lofgren) Merrill.

He attended Blair Academy, where he was class president, and graduated from Princeton University in 1954. He earned a master’s degree at the University of Nebraska, where he met his wife, Mary Jane, and in 1964 received his doctoral degree from the University of Wisconsin. 

He served honorably in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command.

Dr. Merrill was an assistant professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and then at DePauw University before joining the UD faculty in 1969.

He enjoyed traveling in the U.S. and Europe with his family and was an accomplished artist and writer and a lifelong swimmer.

Dr. Merrill is survived by his wife, Mary Jane (Mong) Merrill; three children, Kimberly Merrill, Elizabeth Merrill (Gil Marshall) and Patrick Merrill; three grandchildren, Sam Askin, JD Askin and Charles T. Merrill (Alyssa); daughter-in-law, Jenny Merrill; and one great-grandson, Everett Grant Merrill.

In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his two sisters and his son Charles E. Merrill.

Services and interment were private.  

To read his obituary and to offer online condolences, visit this website.

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