Zachary Merrill

Parents recall ‘truly happy’ son serving in Mali

The Oregonian: July 30, 2003

Zack Merrill reveled in stormy days in Mali because they reminded him of home in Oregon.

But he seemed far from homesick.

The Peace Corps volunteer of nearly two years embraced physical labor — such as lugging 50-pound bricks into a 65-foot hole as he taught the men of an 800-person village how to build two wells.

The 23-year-old loved visiting the market, where he could check out the latest deliveries of clothing that nobody wanted in America. Malians call them “dead foreigners’ clothes” because no one in their right mind would discard such perfectly good garb, his parents say.

He laughed when his Malian host mother wrapped little rocks in candy wrappers to play tricks on the local kids. A 6-foot-1 vegetarian, he indulged in cheese — once eating two large blocks in one sitting.

His parents say the Lake Oswego High and Northwestern University graduate delighted in doing his part for residents of the western African nation, one of the 10 poorest nations in the world, according to the U.S. State Department.

That’s why learning how their son died came as such a shock. According to preliminary investigative and autopsy reports, Merrill took his own life July 6 in his modest mud-walled home in the village of Kampolosso. Toxicology reports are pending.

His parents, Karen and Andy Merrill, have puzzled over question after question. Their answers indicate a happy young man. Zack Merrill wanted to see the vegetable garden he’d plotted and fenced for the village women — to ward off malnutrition from a diet of mostly millet — flourish. He was eager to stay in Mali longer, having recently extended his two years in the Peace Corps by another year. In late June, he told his parents he had reserved a four-wheel-drive vehicle and camels for his father’s first trip to Mali scheduled for July.

“The thing we want people to understand is that Zack was truly happy there,” Karen Merrill said.

The Merrills will hold a memorial service Saturday at Christ Church Episcopal Parish in Lake Oswego for their oldest son. They hope people will remember not how he died, but how he lived.

They see him smile In their Dunthorpe living room one evening last week, the Merrills watched a videotape of him working barefoot in his village. They see his friends.

“His friends, he was so lucky,” Andy Merrill said.

They see the two dogs he adopted. They see him smile.

“I want to go back to the smile of him, just for a second,” Karen Merrill said, before rewinding the videotape, a mother captivated by her boy’s grin.

Andy Merrill also has videotape of his midmonth trip to Mali. Though he had just learned of his son’s death, he made the journey anyway to learn about his son’s life.

The tape shows Andy Merrill and a few of Zack’s friends traveling to his African memorial service, the town where he wrote e-mails, and his village — a congregation of block-shaped, adobelike homes where Zack was the only Peace Corps volunteer. Chickens run between houses. The occasional goat or sheep bleats in the background.

Mourning villagers squat all day in front of Zack’s home. They approach Andy Merrill, one by one, uttering words in their village tongue.

Andy Merrill meets Zack’s host parents. They stand in a circle and cry.

He visits Zack’s home. Then the room Zack died in. It is a tough moment.

But he also sees where his son slept and cooked, and how neatly he’d nailed everything from pots to utensils to Nalgene water bottles to the walls. He checks out the lush green pictures from back home — the McKenzie River and Waldo Lake — stuck to one wall. And the bicycle Zack had crafted from scavenged parts.

Andy Merrill also visits the wells that Zack worked on. He touches the bricks. Mixing the concrete for them, Zack had told his parents, made his body feel like Jell-O.

Notes left on board When colleagues or friends would ask what his son was up to, Andy proudly filled them in.

“It was a better answer than anything I could have imagined,” Andy Merrill said.

At home in the laundry room, Andy Merrill shows off a dry-erase board that after nearly two years, no one has erased. It has his notes from the first telephone conversation with Zack in Mali, about a month after he’d arrived.

“110 degrees,” reads the board, describing the heat.

“45 minutes by bike, nearest PCV,” short for Peace Corps volunteer.

“Matt, Buffalo” a Peace Corps volunteer from New York who became one of his closest friends.

The Merrills don’t plan to wipe the board clean or erase other reminders.

A piercing “beep-beep, beep-beep” cuts through the air, late, after a night of talking about their son. The Merrills are silent. Zack’s wristwatch is on the kitchen counter, and the morning alarm is going off.

“Mali is seven hours ahead,” Karen said.

“It’s 5:55 a.m. there,” Andy said.

This athlete gave but was taken away

The Oregonian: July 10, 2003

We called him Cappy.

My friend Bob Santella coined the nickname during the regular season. Zach Merrill played for Santella’s Little League team. The lanky boy was all heart and ears.

Santella recognized Zach’s leadership. The brainy outfielder was a teammate you wanted next to you in a bind. Bob named him captain, then dubbed him Cappy.

The year was 1992 and I was Bob’s assistant coach on the Lake Oswego All-Star team competing in the District 4 tournament at Alpenrose. Zach was our reliable right fielder.

He saved us in the first game against our crosstown rival, Waluga Little League. He snared a line drive with two aboard, then made a diving catch past the right field line to get us out of a jam.

A few days later, Zach made the last out when Forest Grove eliminated us. He struck out and fell into tears. I tried to console him, but the words flashed hollow. The next morning, I called his house.

“What happened this morning, Zach?” I asked.

“What?” said the 12-year-old.

“That big old sun came on up, didn’t it?” I said.

“Thanks for coaching me, Mr. Meehan,” Zach replied.

Eleven years later, the sun won’t rise again for Zach Merrill. The 23-year-old Northwestern University graduate was found dead Monday in Mali, the western African nation where he had worked for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer.

His family is awaiting the results of a Peace Corps investigation and an autopsy. Andy and Karen Merrill and Zach’s brother, Tim, are in shock.

Zach joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the Medill School of Journalism. He had studied French for 10 years, and French West Africa seemed the right place. When he arrived in Kampolosso, a poor village in Mali’s southern savanna, he discovered no one spoke French. It didn’t faze Zach, who often entertained friends by parroting their words — backward. He soon was speaking Bambara, the local tongue.

The Muslim village lacked power and running water. Zach took a bucket bath twice a day and struggled with the local staple, a millet gruel. His dog got most of his rations.

For two years, he worked to build a community garden, hoping to relieve rampant malnutrition. He erected fences to keep out the goats and led the work to hand dig two 25-meter wells.

“The people didn’t want Zach down in the hole,” said his mother, Karen. “They didn’t want anything to happen to him.”

But of course, Zach took his turn digging in the dark.

You can sometimes glimpse character in the way an athlete performs. Zach played with joy and no fear.

“As a human being, he always gave 100 percent,” said Sara Sather, his youth pastor at Christ Church in Lake Oswego. “There was nothing selfish about him. He was just doing this for the sake of others.”

The Episcopal congregation prayed every Sunday for two Peace Corps volunteers, Zach and my daughter, Katie, who returned last week after three years in Central America. Why Katie came home and Zach didn’t is a mystery I cannot fathom.

But I do know this: I loved Cappy. How could you not love someone so true and good. When I heard he was entering the Peace Corps, I was not surprised. Zach was a giver.

He didn’t know many students when he enrolled at Lake Oswego High School. After Christmas vacation his freshman year, he came home from school looking glum. His mother asked what was wrong. “I think I could go through four years there and no one would know who I was,” he said.

At graduation, his classmates voted Zach “most admired student.”

He lived briefly, 23 sweet years, but for the villagers in faraway Mali, for the disabled adults he mentored in college, for his family and all of us who knew him when, Zach Merrill made such a wonderful difference. The world is lesser today without Cappy.

-Brian Meehan, 503-221-4341;

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