By Walter Meyer | Out of the Archives
I told many people, including Mel Merrill himself, that I wanted to download Mel’s brain. He knew so much about so much. He was a nuclear engineer in his working life, but he also knew about music, food, and literature, in addition to science. For many of us in San Diego’s LGBTQ community, he was a walking archive.
I met Mel years ago at a function of the San Diego Democratic Club, and he seemed a polite, if slightly austere, gentleman. Whenever he spoke, his wicked wit came out; the clever, subtle stabs he could take — many seemed like jokes with time-delayed fuses. He would deliver a line in so deadpan a manner, that it took a moment to get the barb embedded in his droll phrasing.
But it wasn’t until I began working at Lambda Archives that I really got to know Mel. He had served on the Archives board and still continued to volunteer in many capacities. When I needed something, I would think, “I could spend eight hours scrounging in hopes of finding this answer … or I could call or email Mel and have an answer in eight seconds.”
Sometimes it was something simple he could answer over the phone. Other times he would come in to the Archives and help me find items, whether it was a deeply filed document or an archived item about a pivotal person or event in the history of San Diego’s LGBTQ community.
As I learned more about our community’s history and the collections in the Archives, those calls to Mel became less frequent, but he never made me feel stupid for not knowing something (as many smart people can) and never seemed impatient with my inquiries. He liked sharing what he knew. And in the rare cases where he didn’t know, he knew who did and gladly pointed me in the right direction.
In many cases, Mel was part of the history we were researching. He was an early member of the Dem Club (now called the Democrats for Equality), he volunteered on campaigns of LGBTQ candidates, and he founded or was involved in so many community organizations, that it would take several more columns to list them all. When The Center was homeless, he banded together with others to buy a building, which gave them a roof over their heads. He donated time and money to so many good causes, and never in the grand-standing, “Hey, look at all the great stuff I am doing” sort of way.
Scott Williford, president of the Diversionary Theatre board, posted the following on his Facebook page: “The San Diego LGBT community lost a giant today. Mel Merrill — historian, champion of human rights, and an ever-present storyteller and advocate. Rest in peace dear Mel. Such a wise and elegant man.”
At a Lambda Archives event held at Diversionary in 2015, Mel said, “The Argentinian novelist, Jorge Luis Borges, remarked that we all die twice; the first time when the body goes, and the second time when there is no one left to tell your story. Our two organizations exist to tell those stories and we would appreciate your assistance, as donors or members, to continue doing this.”
Mel told many stories. When Lambda Archives was preparing to conduct guided walking tours of Hillcrest’s neighborhood history, he was one of the first people we reached out to for institutional knowledge of the gayborhood. Mel was San Diego LGBTQ history.
At a recent gathering for the Archives, which Mel and his husband David Ramos held at their home this past December, Mel quoted Winston Churchill: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Mel was concerned that LGBTQ people were usually not treated well in the telling of their stories — he felt history had been selective and often flat-out wrong in its depiction of queers.
Mel’s devotion to Lambda Archives was based in large part on his desire to make sure our history would be preserved honestly and shared with future generations.
Mel may have died once, but his second death will be a long time coming. Anyone who knew Mel will go on telling his stories for years to come, and his own history will be written faithfully by those who knew him.
—Walter Meyer is the manager of Lambda Archives. Reach him at email@example.com.
30-year anniversary gala
On Sept. 16, Lambda Archives of San Diego will celebrate 30 years of preserving our community’s LGBTQ history.
Join us at the historic Lafayette Hotel for a cocktail reception and dinner, as we share the stories behind the “pearls” in our collections; remembering the events that shaped our community; honoring the people who wrote our history; and empowering the next generation to learn about its LGBTQ+ identity.
The special guest speaker is intersex and gender non-binary activist Hida Viloria, author of “Born Both: An Intersex Life.”
When: Saturday, Sept. 16. The VIP reception kicks off at 5 p.m., with Hida Viloria and honored guests. Dinner and a program will begin at 6 p.m.
Where: Historic Lafayette Hotel, Swim Club and Bungalows, 2223 El Cajon Blvd., North Park
Tickets: Individual tickets to the dinner and program are $125. Tickets to the VIP reception and dinner are $250. Visit bit.ly/2vyCi2j.
Proceeds will support Lambda Archives in its mission to collect, preserve and teach the LGBTQ history of San Diego and Imperial Counties and Northern Baja California.