By Ken Williams | Contributing Editor
San Diegans are mourning the loss of Meldon “Mel” Merrill, one of the pillars of the local LGBT community, who died Aug. 10. He was 80 years old.
Mr. Merrill is survived by his husband, David Ramos. They were celebrating their one-year anniversary on Aug. 5 when Merrill fell ill and was hospitalized, Ramos told Gay San Diego.
“He was a wonderful addition to my life, a passionate defender of LGBTQ rights, far brighter about science matters than me, an enthusiast for theater, classical music in Los Angeles and San Diego, and gin and tonics,” Ramos said in a Facebook post he also shared with this newspaper.
“I will miss his wry humor and ability to provide balance to my less tempered Mexican ways,” Ramos added. “… Thank you to all the friends, family and community for their love and support.”
On Facebook, tributes rang out for Mr. Merrill, a longtime Democrat Party activist and a tireless advocate for LGBT causes.
- State Sen. Toni G. Atkins paid homage:
“Losing Meldon Merrill is a hard one for those of us who’ve been around and part of earlier LGBTQ Democratic politics. I’m not one of the first generation of San Diego Democratic Club members — I came in 1985 and got more involved in the late ’80s, early ’90s — but Mel was a stalwart.
“He was a behind-the-scenes, dedicated Democrat and LGBTQ pioneer. He wrote big checks for candidates and causes but never demanded VIP treatment. You could find Mel licking stamps (when we sent snail mail) and staffing a booth. He looked out for others, he was gracious and kind, and he was super-smart and terribly funny, with an edgy wit that surprised many when he chose to use it.
“He was part of the small circle that worked tirelessly to finally get an LGBT candidate elected — Christine Kehoe. He relished our community successes.
“I’m sad today at this loss. I extend my heart-felt sympathy to his husband, David, and his many, many close friends in our community. I didn’t see Mel much recently, but believe me, every day I’m grateful for path he helped pave for us, for his role in electing Chris Kehoe, and for his support for me over the years. Godspeed Mel.”
- Maureen Steiner, former president of Lambda Archives of San Diego:
“Mel was a model of all that was good; he was thoughtful, generous, educated and informed, and oh so deliciously wickedly funny. He gave generously, yet strategically, of his time and treasure.
“Mel was rewarded in his later days with a great love and fabulous marriage to David Ramos. As Mel said, ‘I saved the best for last.’ Our collective hearts grieve with you today, David, as we remember with utmost gratitude all that Mel gave to the community he loved.”
“Condolences to friends & family of Meldon Merrill … We will miss his advocacy and support for equality and human rights for all San Diegans. RIP Mel.”
- San Diego Unified School District trustee Kevin Beiser:
- Kelly Revak, processing archivist at the Library of Congress and former archivist for Lambda Archives:
“I’m so saddened to hear about the passing of Meldon Merrill … I worked with Mel for many years at Lambda Archives, and he was a true champion for the community. His compassion and sharp mind kept us on track and through tough spots in many a board meeting. His wit and humor never failed to break the ice or ease the tension in a room. … This is a big loss for the San Diego LGBT community, and my heart goes out to his family and husband. I’ll miss you Mel!”
- Fernando Zweifach López Jr., director of operations at San Diego Pride:
“Meldon Merrill is not someone whose light dims when they leave us. Mel, with his brilliant steady humble passion and wit, served as the architect to our community and guide to so many of us over the decades. He ignited a fire of passion for advocacy in so many of our bellies, hearts, and minds that his flame can only burn ever brighter …”
- Delores Jacobs, CEO of The San Diego LGBT Community Center:
“An amazingly gentle, funny and generous man. So grateful that he took so much time with me early on to patiently explain so much community history to me. RIP Mel — you gave us all so much.”
Mel’s life story
Mr. Mel Merrill was born Sept. 1, 1936, in San Francisco. After graduating from the University of California Berkeley and earning a master’s degree in nuclear engineering at the University of Washington, he came to San Diego in July 1960 to work for General Atomics.
According to his biography, documented by Lambda Archives of San Diego, Merrill designed “nuclear reactors for public utilities, research facilities and outer space.”
He came out around 1970, which proved problematic in the workplace. “In 1979 he sought and (after a government hearing) received a Secret level security clearance as an openly gay man,” his biography states. He remained employed at General Atomics until he retired in July 1986.
After coming out, Merrill plunged headlong into local Democratic politics. In 1977, he joined the San Diego Democratic Club, the LGBT political group that was the forerunner to the San Diego Democrats for Equality. He served on the board for many years and was involved in the pioneering campaigns for City Council of openly gay candidates Al Best (1979) and Neil Good (1987), according to his biography.
As the LGBT political group gained clout, it worked closely to redraw the boundaries of City Council District 3 to make it possible for gays and lesbians to be elected to office. Indeed, in 1993, Christine Kehoe became the first LGBT candidate to win a seat on City Council.
Over the years, Merrill also served on the boards of United San Diego Elections Committee, a bipartisan LGBT PAC, and the SAGA ski club. He helped man the phone hotline for the San Diego AIDS Project. He volunteered and donated to political campaigns, the Victory Fund and the Servicemen’s Legal Defense Network. He most recently volunteered at the San Diego Human Dignity Foundation, where he chaired the Grants Committee.
Merrill became involved with The Center when it was originally located on B Street. He became a longtime supporter and donor, and “in 1980 joined with six other community members to form a real estate partnership to buy the building that became The Center’s second site on 30th Street,” according to a memorial to Merrill posted by Pat McArron, former webmaster of Lambda Archives, on the website, findagrave.com.
And Merrill has his name on two rooms at The Center’s current location in Hillcrest, McArron wrote.
David Ramos, Merrill’s husband, wrote on Facebook about how he felt about the numerous tributes:
“Thank you everyone. It warms my heart, makes me proud and happy that Mel was my husband when I read the comments. Love you all.”
Ramos later told Gay San Diego that his husband was adamant that there would be no memorial service in his honor.
“His desire was to have a party at the LGBT Center, of which he was a longtime supporter,” Ramos said. “In addition, he suggested that any memorial contributions made in his name should be made to Lambda Archives of San Diego.”
Before press time, Ramos said the party to celebrate the life of Merrill will be held Sept. 23 at The Center. More details to follow.
—Ken Williams is a contributing editor of Gay San Diego and can be reached at email@example.com or at 619-961-1952.