Eulogy on the occasion of the death of Merrell Noden
RICH O’BRIEN, Senior Editor Sports Illustrated
I would say ‘Thank you all for coming,’ but I know—based on how I feel and what I’ve heard from many of you, that as sad as it is, it’s actually a privilege and a kind of a joy to be here to celebrate and honor our dear, great friend—our unique friend—Merrell.
It’s daunting to try to be eloquent about a man who could—and frequently did—quote extensively, accurately and fittingly—often in the same sentence—from great poets ranging from Shakespeare to James Brown to John Cleese.
We who are here today and knew Merrell are lucky and blessed. That sort of echoes Henry V, and in a nod to the great Shakespearean scholar that Merrell was, I could add, ‘We few, we happy few.’ Except that we are clearly not few.
As most of you are aware, this event was moved to this location because Eva recognized that so many of us wanted to be here, to remember, celebrate and pay tribute to Merrell; to grieve and yet be joyous with her, Miranda and Sam, and with Wilson and Cecily, Hilary, Geoffrey and their entire family.
(At the same time, I recall that Merrell was a lifelong aspiring actor —and those who thrilled to his turn in Julius Caesar just a few years ago feel free to applaud. I’m sure he would be gratified to know that he can still pack a house.)
It’s fitting too that we gather not so far from the Lawrenceville School. There in the Lavino Field House, there are, like, a dozen bronze plaques bearing Merrell’s name—Lawrenceville School Athletic Hall of Fame, School record holder 1-mile run; 2-mile run; 880 yards. His former coach, Ed Poreda, who is here today and who now coaches Merrell and Eva’s son, Sam, can attest to Merrell’s accomplishments. At Lawrenceville, Merrell ran a 4:11.9 mile on a distance medley team that set a U.S. high school indoor record; and, on his own, he set an Eastern high school indoor 880 record of 1:54-flat; he would go on to run four years of cross-country at Princeton; as a post-grad he would run a 2:30 marathon. And he was still running races right up until he got sick.
But Merrell was far more than a great pair of legs. (Though, seriously, having run with him for so many miles, over so many years, I have to ask: how could such a big guy have such skinny calves?)
Eva picked out a handsome suit for Merrell to be buried in—and, in a beautiful stroke, complemented that suit with a mud-encrusted pair of running shoes. That strikes me as perfect—a lovely, and loving, nod to a big part of Merrell’s life. But then I think she could as well have thrown in a guitar, a bag of golf clubs, a complete set of Shakespeare; Chuck Berry’s greatest hits; a volume of Sherlock Holmes; maybe some Scandinavian mysteries and a slice of pie or two; a math text book and whatever Monty Python DVDs she could find. And, of course, countless photos of Merrell, Eva, Miranda and Sam enjoying each other’s company; hosting others; at track meets; on vacation. Merrell loved life, and one reason he did was because he understood that his family allowed him to be who he was and that he and they—and the rest of us—were the better for it.
Merrell’s breadth of interest and engagement—which took him after Lawrenceville to Princeton (where he was summa cum laude) and then to Oxford and from there to Manhattan and eventually back to Princeton—was inspiring and a constant delight to all of us who knew him. It was manifested in his conversation, his emails and, of course, in his work: He was a strong and graceful writer whose own restless intelligence illuminated whatever he was writing about, from golf course design to rock ’n’ roll to advanced mathematics.
As a writer, he was an editor’s dream. Thirty years ago, I was working as an editor for The Runner magazine and Merrell did a story for us as a free-lancer. I did virtually nothing to his copy (even then, Merrell’s prose was remarkable for its grace and polish) and proudly published it in the next issue—with his byline spelled M-e-r-r-I-l-l.
I’ve had writers complain about an added comma, write outraged emails about a slightly tweaked lead. Merrell sent me a postcard, saying it had been a pleasure working with me, thanking me for “improving the story” and saying how much he hoped we’d work together again soon. It was only in a P.S. that he finally, politely, mentioned that his name is spelled with an e.
That was my first taste of Merrell’s constitutional kindness. There would be countless more.
The other striking aspect of Merrell’s professional approach was his lack of cycnicism, a rare quality in a journalist. He wasn’t there just for the quick lead, the snarky take. As his friend and former colleague Richard Demak put it, Merrell never took a cheap shot. He always honored the subject and never put himself before the story. Now, many of us here are writers and reporters. Many of us know what it is to parachute into someone’s life, write and move on. And we know how rare it is for one of our subjects—someone we’ve reported on—to even want to see us again, let alone to keep in touch. Yet Merrell established close and lasting relationships with an astonishing number of the people he wrote about—in sports, music, golf, academia. Many are here today, I believe. That’s because Merrell was genuinely curious about others and thrilled by their accomplishments.
That trait made him the great friend he was to so many different people, people that he so often brought together so that they became friends too. Merrell could tell you—and invariably did—what any number of classmates or colleagues had studied, what their senior papers were on, what graduate degrees they’d gotten when and where and what professional accomplishments they’d racked up. (Along with their times for the mile, or what they once shot on the back nine at Beaverbrook.)
That impassioned appreciation of accomplishment was paired with a profound sense of justice and a righteous anger at those he believed were denying others the chance to achieve. His contempt for the administrators who effectively shut down the English class he taught at Trenton State Prison was palpable. And there was that intervention we nearly had to stage to keep him from exploding while watching a certain “fair and balanced” news show, night after increasingly agitated night.
Like all of you, I’m sure, I have already caught myself a dozen times since Sunday thinking of something I want to tell Merrell or of an email to send or book to recommend. I have a feeling that impulse is not going to go away. And in a very real sense I don’t want it to. That feeling of connection is why we are all here today, and why so many were there for Merrell—and for Eva, and Miranda and Sam—throughout Merrell’s illness. Eva expresses her gratitude so eloquently in the program, but really the thanks go to her, Miranda and Sam, for letting us all continue to be part of Merrell’s life and he of ours. All of us owe the three of you a debt of gratitude for that.
Eva, you know you were the light of Merrell’s life. Last week, when I came to visit at the hospital and you and Merrell were looking at your wedding video—that very day, you told me, was your 25th anniversary—and Merrell, of course, was pointing out all the various people on the screen, recounting their accomplishments, where they went to school, what their mile times were. But I saw in that herky-jerky video, both of you so young and beautiful as you rowed out onto the lake in Central Park, I saw how Merrell looked at you with such love and wonder. That look never changed.
And, Eva, throughout this long and harrowing trial you have been an absolute model of strength and grace and patience—and above all love. You are, of course, an artist and what I saw in you and in what you brought to Merrell and your family these past two years was not endurance or making do or easing a burden. It was creation—the creation of a full and rewarding life even amid the illness. And that is a transcendent gift that you gave to Merrell and to your family and I can only look to you in wonder and awe.
And you, Miranda and Sam, please know how good you were to your father, taking care of him, of course, but also in living your lives, running, playing music, acting, taking care of Sasha and Lulu; growing and becoming in ways that I know brought profound satisfaction to your dad.
Miranda, who graduates from high school tomorrow. Sam who, on the day after his father’s death, insisted on taking his math final. “He’s a little Merrell,” said Eva. Please know how very, very much he loved you. You know, it takes a long time for two fifty-somethings to run 10 miles together. A long time. And Merrell filled so many of those running hours talking of you, Miranda, and you, Sam. Of his hopes and dreams for you, of his admiration, his delight and not-infrequent puzzlement. His pride. And in every conversation, over every mile, his love was so clear.
There is no question that you have suffered a loss that you will feel every day of your lives. There’s no way around that. Your dad’s physical presence is irreplaceable. But you also both already have everything in what your father gave you. And that will be with you every minute of every day. So much of him is in you both: That distance runner’s tenacity. That intellectual curiosity. That quick wit. The music and the appetite. That sense of fairness and profound empathy for those less fortunate. With all that, you go forth supremely well-equipped to embrace life.
And all of us—whether we ran with Merrell, golfed with him, traveled with him, played music with him, were in a book group with him, wiled away the hours in the Emerald Inn with him, put out a magazine with him, taught Shakespeare to prisoners with him, acted with him, argued politics with him, even cheered for the Phillies with him—all of us go forward from here richer for the time spent with him.
For myself, I know that however many more miles I run—literally or metaphorically—I run them with Merrell. To say goodbye seems impossible. So on behalf of us all, I’ll say only, Thank you, Merrell. Thank you, dear friend.