Often times with a wild relatability rather than certainty you feel that someone you’ve met is important in your life. Their presence is beyond itself without being overbearing and their dynamism is clairvoyant; they see potential you’ve not yet actuated. They laugh loudly with infectious energy because why not? They ignite curiosity because it’s a human spirit’s fuel behind the fire. By being around them you feel better, more capable, with momentum and endorphins skipping hand in hand down yellow cobblestone. Their path is dubious and may not be particular in fundamentals, traditionalism, being polite or even successful 100% of the time. These people have a tendency to foster kinship and creativity with a fondness for living and a passion for life. These are people that are truly, deeply missed when they are gone.
Micael Merrifield was one of these people. Mr. Merrifield was, in the flesh, was utterly Dionysian and as witty as Dickinson; a vivid inspiration pacing the classroom in a denim jacket. A proud owner of a sheep herding Border Collie. He spoke wine and mescaline with his biological anthropology and wasn’t afraid of dialogue with his students, taking teaching back to historical storytelling roots.
“I’m always up for a chat,” he told me when I asked sardonically whether or not he was willing to discuss the specifics of (and my potential employment at) the pomegranate farm he planned to start after 2013, his last year teaching. His untimely end cut those post-retirement dreams short.
News of his tragic death spread fast. Friends at Berkeley knowing within 20 minutes of class dismissal where the test had been canceled and that seemingly good news subsequently ripped asunder. Half of us still held onto our scantrons and perused Chapter 3 of the text expecting humorous and youthful Merrifield to pop up in a cloud of smoke-some prankster leer on his face with a handful of tests shredded into confetti.
Instead, counselors came forth to comfort an entire classroom. I flashed back to memories with him. He laughed heartily when I told him Instagram existed solely for people to post pictures of food. In turn I laughed heartily when he told the class his refusal of early life’s advice to, “Get yourself a good Catholic girl,” for the more “fun” of having Jewish temple girls down the road. Those in his Monday and Wednesday 9-10:20 AM class may recall the potential use of an elevator that he so generously revealed us. The list goes on and on.
Micael Merrifield was real. In his early years at Saddleback as a library aid and tutor, he drove a rigorous commute through Ortega Highway every morning. He’d been an outspoken Faculty Union Head before his tenure.
He enjoyed annual trips to Ireland, Mexico, or Cuba with students, paying travel bills for those who backed out or couldn’t otherwise afford to go (he probably even picked up the tab at the pub). A regular saint sans robe and beard. When he brought up those much acclaimed trips to Ireland, I talked with him for longer than my Adderal-generation attention span could normally withstand.
After news of his passing, a walk outside of class caught muscle bound men uncharacteristically teary eyed whilst they recollected poignant little experiences: that he taught a Mexican student how to roll their R’s, how he used to have a drink and a chat with them after night classes, how he smoked with them on break, talked course material as well as personal opinion, incensed or absent mindedly regaled them with tales that put cheer in their hearts, sincerity in their manner.
Our world is bound and gagged. Dragged by rabid horses through dismal office complexes, and shrines of bureaucracy. Merrifield was the kind of person who denounced that religious doctrine. Most importantly, he cared and students sensed it. Pouring intense passion in his jumbled words and wonderfully energetic teaching performance.
Good friend of Merrifield and fellow faculty member, Mr. Winwood summarized that “Learning doesn’t stop outside the classroom.” This being the sacred mantra to which Merrifield adhered. People picked his brilliant mind for humor and knowledge. His vitality and daringness giving a sense that Merrifield’s world was a playground. And if one could remain childishly exuberant at heart they could find all manner of fun alongside their learning.
He was not without principles. Quick to curse Columbus’ cruelties and how the West was won by American forefathers. Merrifield was well traveled, linguistic, intuitive and compassionate for the oppressed and under-appreciated. Working extensively with the Juaneno tribe of San Juan Capistrano, he spent years compiling information about the tribe and their culture. He maintained a heartfelt intensity that allowed his obsessive urge to fly him out to Washington nearly every weekend to lobby for their Federal recognition.Though the US once more denied the tribe their true autonomy, Merrifield still kept close ties to them.
The Vietnamese community in Little Saigon who he helped immigrate during the late 70’s also remaining closely tied to Merrifield. Stubborn, eccentric, and passionate for humanity as Professor Gilman is for poetry, there were few who weren’t hit heavily by his sudden heart attack.
There are dynamic personalities that light up a room with enough circuitry in their souls to power cities a hundred times over the traditional hamster wheel or nuclear generator. Frankly, there are people who make life worth living. They add to that nameless joy, who manufacture euphoria in the spine and behind the neck. These are people who exude living, exist in a contagious positivity, and even after death these types go on reviving the dull-eyed morning classes through memories, inspirations, little moments that’ll go cherished despite their absence.
Merrifield’s memorial will undoubtedly be packed with people whose lives he touched, from family and lifelong friends, to myself who had known the man a scant month or so. Each weepy with sorrow but giddy with memory. Clenching fists in white knuckled loss and clasping hands in respects paid to a great man and mentor. At that point, he’ll presumably spring to life and crack open a Guinness-or maybe that’s just hoping for too much.