Norman Merrill, of Jamestown, was awarded the 2012 Axel W. Carlson Award by the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation. Merrill accepted the award in front of 250 family members, friends and community well-wishers at the Lucille Ball Little Theatre, where he has volunteered for 47 years.
In addition to building 83 sets for a variety of shows at the Theatre, Merrill has built himself an impressive reputation among those he has come into contact with over the years.
Kim Earle, one of Merrill’s nominators, stated in her nomination, “He has performed good deeds that have touched young and old alike. He is one of the noblest men you will ever meet.”
Those closest to Merrill have described him as the ideal “good neighbor” who will always step up and lend a helping hand, no matter how big or small the job. His wife of nearly 55 years, Helen, refers to him as the “Bionic man” because of his ability to do so many things. Even the Theatre ghosts approve of Merrill’s work.
“I was walking across the stage to turn on the lights,” Merrill said, “I was working on a staircase for the set so I was standing on a ladder and I distinctly hear, ‘Good Job Norm’. I turn around and no one is there.”
There is a chance it was Leland Ward, a technical aficionado who volunteered at the Theatre throughout the mid 1900’s, but no one knows for certain.
While his community involvement has revolved around Little Theatre for almost half a century, it is only the tip of the iceberg of what he has accomplished in his life.
Recently added to the Wall of Fame at Pine Valley Central High School, Merrill graduated in 1954 and attended SUNY Delhi, located in the Catskill Mountains. During his two years at Delhi he earned a degree that focused on engineering and construction. In 1956 he began a 42-year career in the construction industry as Construction Superintendent in the Jamestown area.
In addition to renovating the Jones Hill facility and WCA Hospital, Merrill was also responsible for 50 structures throughout the city of Jamestown. One of the accomplishments he is most proud of is the parking ramp on the corner of Third and Spring Streets.
In 1965, Merrill began volunteering at the Theatre where he offered his skills maintaining and repairing the building and helping with set construction. He also served on the House Committee at this time. Seventeen years later, Merrill began logging countless hours as he helped Helen create the Junior Guilders, a children’s show choir.
Today, Merrill continues to assist with the Junior Guilders. He shares the chaperone responsibilities when the children travel around the country, builds sets and coordinates the sound systems and even serves as a mentor to any child who may need some guidance or just a compassionate ear. At the Theatre, Merrill continues to volunteer as a set designer and builder and has also begun work on renovating the backstage area.
“Here is a man who dedicated over half of his life to behind the scenes work, never expecting anything in return,” said Bob Young, chairman of the Axel W. Carlson Award selection committee at the Foundation. “His modesty, when it comes to his work, speaks volumes of his character. There is so much Norm does for our community that it is time he is recognized for his actions and thanked by all of the people he inspired along the way.”
During the award ceremony, the Junior Guilders honored Merrill with a performance. Because of his commitment to the Jamestown area and dedication to the Jamestown Community College “Morning Maniacs” exercise group, they sang “Jamestown, New York” and “Rise Up Singing.”
The Jamestown Harmony Barbershop Express Chorus, of which Merrill is a member, also performed. Other performers included Tiffany Wakeley-Heintzman, Cameron Hurst, a group of former Junior Guilders, Carla Kayes and Bob Ostrom.
In addition to the Guilders and Little Theatre, Merrill is also a member of the Rotary Club of Jamestown and a trustee and former president of the Ad Council at Camp Street United Methodist Church. In the past he has served on the YMCA Building Committee and Town of Ellicott Development Committee.
Since 1986, the Axel W. Carlson Award has been a tribute to the “unsung heroes” of our community. Carlson was a Swedish immigrant who believed in helping others without reward or recognition. Upon his death in 1981, it was discovered he left a substantial portion of his estate to help others. He started a number of funds at the Community Foundation to continue his charitable giving and in 1985 the Foundation allocated some of that money to this award.
Every year, the Foundation awards an individual the title “Unsung Hero” in honor of Carlson. As a part of the award the Foundation has donated to the following organizations in Merrill’s honor: Junior Guilders; The Leland Ward Little Theatre Fund, administered by the Community Foundation; The Chautauqua County Humane Society; The American Heart Association and Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
“When I retired, I was offered three paying jobs,” Merrill said. “I turned them all down. I loved being a full-time volunteer.”