Merrill’s talent will be long remembered

Published 3:24 am Saturday, February 4, 2017

“William Merrill’s not a starched-white-shirt kind of guy, but he’s busy these days constructing a huge tribute to the men and women who spent their careers sewing those shirts for others.”

I wrote that in 2012, after interviewing William while he was building the Big White Shirt on River Falls Street that serves as a monument to textile workers.

He was having fun with the project, and he wasn’t just at Welco building it. He worked on the concept with local artist Larry Strickland, and the design with engineers at Clark Trailers. He also read everything he could about the construction of the Statue of Liberty, he said.

The result was the 13-foot-tall shirt that is 11 feet wide from elbow to elbow.

William was a Vietnam veteran who learned to weld growing up in and around his family’s construction business, his brother Scotty said. After returning from Asia, William went to school to study metallurgy.

“He worked shutdown all over the country until he was about 40,” Scotty said. “That’s when I talked him in to opening his shop. I told he wouldn’t make as much money, but he’d keep more of it.”

That’s exactly what William did.

He earned industry-wide acclaim when he built the obelisk that is the Covington County Veterans Memorial. He loved to tell the story of how he was almost done with the obelisk in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan was about to bear down on Andalusia.

The obelisk was on its side in his shop near downtown. William said he starting thinking about the obelisk, and the strength at which he had built it to withstand winds.

“I just crawled inside it,” he said.

When the monument was put into place and began to draw attention, no one could believe that one man and one teen-aged helper made it, William said.

He also built the handrails at the courthouse, and countless other sets of handrails in a multi-county area.

“He had a lot of talent,” Scotty said, “but he was also bi-polar.”

William Merrill left us this week, taking his own life a day after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Scotty knows little about the diagnosis, only that his brother received it.

Suicides are often spoken of only in whispers, and it’s long been the policy of most newspapers not to report them; the family is generally in enough pain. But this one felt different.

Scotty said there’s no need to be hypocritical about it; William did things his own way.

Indeed, many could understand his decision to go quickly, opting out of the potential pain and suffering that often accompanies the diagnosis he received. Scotty said that didn’t make it any easier to lose a sibling.

William was a talented man and a kind soul, and left the world with huge, happy remembrances of his talent.


Editor’s note: Arrangements have not been finalized, but Scotty Merrill said a memorial service will likely be held on Sat., Feb. 11.


Michele Gerlach is publisher of The Star-News.