A life well lived: Friends, colleagues remember Dr. Judy Merritt at memorial

Published 9:14 pm Friday, October 24, 2014

By KATIE MCDOWELL/General Manager

HOOVER – Scores of Dr. Judy Merritt’s friends and colleagues gathered at Jefferson State Community College’s Hoover-Shelby Campus on Oct. 24 to honor her memory.

Merritt, who died on Oct. 19, served as president of Jefferson State Community College for 35 years until her retirement in June. She was remembered as a caring friend, loving wife, passionate advocate for education and a powerful businesswoman. She was quick with a hug or words of support and humble, always insisting to be called Judy instead of Dr. Merritt.

“Trying to get Judy to talk about her achievements or titles or awards was an exercise in futility. She would invariably turn the conversation to you,” said her pastor, Matthew Roskam of Chelsea Creek Community Church.

On Friday, however, her friends took to the podium to praise the work of Merritt, whose achievements and titles were numerous.

The only child of educators, Merritt received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Alabama.

“She actually entered the university at age 16 and this launched her passion for helping others through higher education,” Alabama Community College System Chancellor Dr. Mark Heinrich said. “She would say that her most important decision during her years at the university came when she met her future husband, Thomas E. Merritt, Jr., about whom she frequently spoke. She … always described him as her best friend and the love of her life.”

Merritt began working for Jefferson State Junior College in 1965 as counselor of admissions and later worked for Florida International University, according to her obituary. In 1979, Alabama Gov. Fob James appointed Merritt president of Jefferson State.

“This appointment marked the first time a woman had been appointed a president of a two-year institution in the state of Alabama,” Heinrich recalled.

That was one of several firsts for Merritt. She was later the first female corporate board member for Energen Corporation and the only female board member on the South Trust Board of Directors. She was also the first woman to chair the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce.

“Judy may have been the most powerful woman in the history of Alabama, at least not one tied to a husband … She had a network of presidents and legislators and CEOs that was remarkable and I think it was unrivaled,” former Alabama State Board of Education member David Byers said in his remarks.

Byers met Merritt at 34 years old when he was campaigning for election for his state school board seat. He would serve four terms in office, including stints as president pro tem and vice president, and he and Merritt became friends.

He remembered her fierce support of Jefferson State and higher education. He jokingly remembered Merritt as “a hater,” who would fiercely oppose any politician, media company or other group that she felt did not serve the best interests of her school or higher education.

“Judy hated because of what she loved,” Byers said. “She loved Jefferson State and its students. She loved access to education for people with challenges. She loved second chances.

‘She loved opportunity for everybody, not just the privileged. She loved authenticity; she loved humility,” he continued. “And if she didn’t think you were for those things and you were in her way, then she hated you.”

While Merritt was quick to support a student, colleague or friend in need, she was also very private and did not share the news that she was ill with family and friends until shortly before her death, according to Roskam and several other speakers.

“Now, someone has said the closest we can come to perfection is during a job interview and when we’re being memorialized. I think that’s probably true,” Roskam said. “No one is saying (Merritt) was perfect or flawless. She was a colorful, strong character, but that’s not the point. The point, I think, is that she lived her life very well.”