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Remembering Dr. William G. Merhab

Written October 20, 2001

 

It was a bright, cheerful morning as I walked back across the Diag on the University of Michigan campus that day in September of 1959. I was returning from my 8:00 am, Saturday morning math class. As I walked under the Engineering Arch, I looked to the right, and was reminded that Bill Merhab was often in his office early, so I decided to stop by. Sure enough, he was hard at work on a project. Nevertheless, he welcomed me with a characteristic warmth that I had come to crave in my fast-paced undergraduate academic environment. There was something so “un-academic” about Bill, and yet so clearly learned. I was transitioning from being a boy to becoming a man, and Bill was one of the few adults I had known as a boy who seemed to make that process move forward for me. He and I never talked about this – it just occurs to me now as I reminisce. His secret was to always treat me as an equal, so he could remain constant while I struggled with change, gradually evolving toward becoming an adult.

I spent some moments in Bill’s office that morning, awkward late teen moments, drinking in his calmness, his steady sense of caring, and his respect for me. Then, I left and walked out South University to Washtenaw, past the Mud Bowl, to my fraternity house. I knew I had made the right decision to come to Michigan. Everything seemed right in my life. I was growing up.

I was met at the steps of the Fiji house by my roommate, and two other brothers I liked and respected. They asked me to accompany them to the “Inner Sanctum” (our name for our fraternity President’s room). Then, with the same force that high-jacked jetliners have recently impacted all of our lives, I learned of my father’s death that same morning – probably at the moment I was sitting in Bill’s office. Things were not right in my life again for a long time.

I felt as if Bill was my last tie to my previous life. Suddenly, I was on my own. I continued my habit of stopping by his office that year, for reassurance that I was not alone. He gave it willingly and freely, though perhaps as awkwardly as I received it. Nevertheless, there was no question in either of our minds how powerful the bond between us had suddenly become.

Bill had grown up with my father at Camp Storer and then as fellow students at Michigan. My favorite story about their relationship is the “unofficial bartering” that went on between them: My father, a member of the swim team, landed a “cushy job” as a lifeguard in the pool in the Michigan Union. In another part of the Union, Bill made root beer milkshakes of phenomenal reputation, behind the soda fountain counter. There were many “free swims” traded for “free shakes”, I learned while growing up. I also heard Bill recite The Cremation of Sam McGee, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, The Baldness of Chewed-Ear Jenkins, and Casey at the Bat countless times as a boy when Bill would come to visit my parents.

In many of the photos from the late 30’s and early 40’s, taken at camp, there are the faces of Bill and my father, Ivan, proudly providing the support other boys, their
contemporaries or younger, needed – several of whom I’m sure are present today: Clark Ewing, Carl Bruno, and others probably not present today: Bob Stollberg, Bob Ash, Larry Bandfield.

I graduated from Michigan, said my good-byes to Bill, and set out for Chicago and my first job with the YMCA. It was clear to me that there was some “footstep following” going on in my life, though not necessarily the ones I thought I was following. I gave a very exciting five years of my career to the YMCA, first as an “Assistant Boys Work Secretary” (Is anyone still called that!), then as a Detached Worker with Gangs (I probably caused more gang fights through the manipulations my gang members played out on me, than prevented them.), and then as the Director of a program to use group work to reach underachieving students on the south side of Chicago. It didn’t take me long to realize I needed to know more about helping people and decided to return to school for my doctorate. To make a long story short, I have ended up as a university professor of social work, often hard at work in my office on Saturday mornings, not to mention Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sundays as well. I probably work harder and longer than I should, but it is freeing work, somehow guided by the strength and quiet respect I received at the right time from Bill Merhab, my father, Bob Stollberg, Carl Bruno, Clark Ewing, and, of course, Doc Miller. Somewhere, along the way, my students began calling me “Doc Smith”, and at first, I resisted it, feeling almost like an imposter pretending to adopt that title. I didn’t feel anything like the legend I had met a few times as a boy, and always heard Bill and my father refer to with such respect. It was like a silent, relentless whirling wind was surrounding me and encouraging me to move forward with their spirit to accompany me. Gradually, the name adopted me, at first with me resisting, and now with me as the proud teller of Storer legends to my own students.

The last time I saw Bill Merhab was a summer’s day in the early 90’s. I was visiting my son, Aric, who was in Dental School in Ann Arbor, and we had picked Bill up to take him with us to visit camp. Some people at camp knew who he was, but most saw only a slowly moving, rather thin old man. But his energy was still there. His wit was still sparkling. As Bob Stollberg says, “Bill was always slight of build, skinny as a rail, and flat-chested. Yet he was strong as an ox, and had great physical endurance.” That day at Storer, he walked circles around the rest of us. Most of all, that day, I felt treated as an equal, and I felt his respect.

We have all lost much in the past few weeks, but my most significant loss in this past year has been Bill. We are all fortunate to have been touched by his spirit and Storer is all the richer for the work he did here with the people who knew him and have heard stories about him. Good bye, Jaloppy.

Marshall L. Smith

 

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