Obituary: Merrill Eugene Slate

Sat, 08/25/2012 - 8:55pm
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We buried Merrill Slate today - the end of a long journey for an 87-year-old man who died just a few houses away from where he was born here on Block Island.

Oh, he traveled half way around the world with his beloved U.S. Coast Guard during the years of WW II, but he returned home and essentially stayed here on the island for the rest of his life.

He left a legacy here today as his coffin was lowered into the ground. It was supposed to be a private deal, no flowers, no party, no wake. “Get me from my bed to the grave as soon as possible when my time comes,” he told me. You see, Merrill felt that he also died when his wife passed on almost four years ago. “Doc, you wrote a lot of nice things about her then,” he said, referring to her obituary. “You said beautiful things about us in the words at the graveside,” (this was the eulogy). “You don’t have to do all that again for me, just keep it very simple.”

And that was Merrill.

Merrill left us rather abruptly this week. We all knew he was slipping since his last spell of pneumonia in the spring, but we didn’t expect a sudden demise. Many townspeople and friends would sit and visit him in his garage over the last few months while his home health aide Diane would go shopping. He would wave to all as they would pass. So on Monday morning, as news spread on this island, many were shocked and saddened to hear that he had died in his sleep during the night.

I first met Merrill almost 40 years ago out here on the Block. I was brought here by Franklin Renz, the owner of the power company, to treat his employees for a serious flu outbreak. I met Merrill covered with grease, pulling a huge piston out of an engine, coughing and running a 104 degree temp, with an obviously serious infection. “Sir, you must go home and to bed,” I said to him after giving him a series of shots. He quickly retorted, “I will about midnight once this engine starts.”

That was for me the beginning of the Merrill Slate legacy. This man would place his own health on the line, so that his community could continue to have electricity during a brutally cold winter.

We became good friends from then on, with both Merrill and Virginia becoming part of my family. He would not wonder that it would be me burying him, trying to give him a very private funeral, as he had requested.

Sorry, Merrill, but it didn’t exactly turn out that way. There were too many people that loved you, and they kind of overruled my plans.

It started at the gravesite early Tuesday morning. Joe Sprague and his son Abel, along with Paul Quakenbush, were digging the grave. I thanked Joe for taking time out of his busy day and at such short notice, Merrill having only died the day before. But Joe quietly said, “It’s the least that I could do for Merrill.”

Kind of talking to myself, I said, “I need six pallbearers,” and a response from the grave was, “You have three here.” I probably could have had 50, but settled for the three plus Dick Martin, who worked with Merrill; Chris Blane, whose father worked with Merrill; and Merrill’s nephew Les Slate. I was looking at six island people proudly carrying the casket to the grave. It was the two young individuals, Abel and Paul in their early twenties, who dug the grave and then carried the casket, who showed to me what an effect this old man had on even the next generation. That really is legacy.

Thirty legionnaires all dressed in blue stood at attention as Commander Dan Millea shouted out the salutes. This devoted group of individuals called to duty for Merrill, a member for 65 years. Arthur Rose and Gene Rankin, both in their 90s, stood stoically on the sidelines. Our Chief of Police Vincent Carlone took up the duty of traffic, but stood near the hearse with a tear in his eye as the casket was removed. It was only last week that the chief played his guitar for Merrill and serenaded him for hours in his garage.

There were holy words from our Legion Chaplin Gerry Pierce and funeral director John Gallogly. Diane Jones, who was with Merrill as he died, read a poem as she quietly cried. It was over. He was lowered into the ground.

The large crowd walked away. I noticed three young girls, flowers in their hands, all grandchildren of Franklin and Mary Renz, climbing down into the crypt and all crying as they placed more flowers. They too brought cookies to Merrill within the last few weeks. Probably a bit young to understand that he was here that day but is gone now, but they must already understand this thing called legacy.

Well he didn’t go directly from his bed to the grave, but through the great efforts of John Gallogly, he did with only a short pitstop at the cold storage. Merrill died at home in his own bed with Diane by his side after only a short time off his feet and without a complaint of any kind. These were all his last wishes.

A great testimony for an old islander that was once awarded the Bayberry Wreath, who taught youngsters about birds at the school even this year, who gave thousands of dollars away to every charity imaginable in $20 increments for many years. He even led the successful effort to give our island veterans a property tax exemption.

It still doesn’t explain why everyone so loved this man, but all we know is that they do and they did.

May you rest in peace, my good friend.

— John Willis