Faces in the Crowd – Greg and Sandy Merrifield

May 10, 2018

by Aaron Michell

He was once a California boy.  She’s always been a Michigan girl.
He’s a lawyer.  She’s a nurse and a pastor.

And yet over the last 45 years, Greg and Sandy Merrifield have made it all work to perfection.

Greg, the son of Jim and Naomi Merrifield, grew up moving from city to city along the west coast with his family, while his parents worked in the grocery business.  He moved to Marion midway through his senior year in high school – along with Merrifield’s Grocery, his brother Paul, and his sister Kerry – and Marion has remained his home ever since.

Sandy and Greg Merrifield with their grand daughter Julia.

Sandy and Greg Merrifield with their grand daughter Julia.

Sandy, the oldest of six siblings, was born and raised right here in Marion.  The daughter of Rick and Marilyn Russell, Sandy grew up spending most of her days with her family: Mom, Dad, Rich, Peggy, Brenda, Nancy and Doug.  She grew up singing, playing the piano, cheerleading, and attending church every Sunday.

Law is his profession. Faith is her gift.  Family is their everything.

From their 50th Avenue residence, Greg and Sandy proudly raised three Marion graduates:  Michelle, Steffanie, and Jeff.

Michelle, a ’97 graduate, and her husband, Pete Quinones, now reside in Atlanta, Georgia along with their 7 year-old daughter, Julia.  Jeff, an ’04 grad, is in Atlanta too, along with his wife Karissa and their two children: Mila, 4, and Livi, 1.  Steffanie, class of ’99, can be found closer to home: she lives in Bellaire, Michigan, with her 7 year-old son Grayson, and 5 year-old daughter, Paige.

Greg and Sandy at their home in Marion.

Greg and Sandy at their home in Marion.

And while the travel expenses may be piling up for the Merrifield family, the opportunity to be there for their kids and grandkids, and to watch their family grow – that opportunity remains priceless.

We were fortunate recently to visit with Sandy and Greg at their home just a few miles southwest of town.  We learned a lot in our brief conversation: we talked about hunting and snowmobiling, piano and church; we talked about tennis, the law, nursing, the Ben Franklin dime store, and old man’s basketball.

We discussed just a few of the things that make Greg and Sandy Merrifield more than just a couple of faces in the crowd.

Marion Press: I know it might sound cliché, but you are both kind of pillars of this community.
Sandy: You know, I said [to Greg] are we that old!?
Greg: We are. We are.
Sandy: We went, oh shoot; we are! Because we always looked up to the Swiler’s, and just certain people in town who were always involved with the school and businesses for so many years. And a lot of those people have moved on, or passed away, and now, gosh darn, here we are!

MP: So Greg, you’re originally from California.  Tell us about your upbringing.
Greg: Born and raised.  My folks were in the grocery business.  They worked it two ways – they’d buy a store that had promise but was not being operated to meet potential.  They’d buy it right, build it up to potential, they’d make money while they were building it up, and then they’d sell it at that potential price and make money on the sale.  And then they’d move.  I lived a lot of different places.

MP: That sounds adventurous!
Greg:  It was.  I was born in Santa Anna.  I lived in Grant’s Pass, Oregon.  I lived in Santa Rosa; Anaheim, California; Huntington Beach.  And then I lived in San Jacinto for quite a while – that’s where I would’ve graduated from, but my dad got tired of working for somebody else.  They sold their store in San Jacinto, and we moved back here [to Michigan].
We came back here the summer between my junior and senior year, looking for a grocery store.  I started school at Gull Lake, down by Jackson; during the first semester he found the store here, and we moved up here at the semester break.
Town was booming then. They had the Riverside factory.  On Friday nights – and the grocery store had two checkout stands then – they’d roll up a portable third for Friday afternoon.

MP: What was the name of the grocery store then?
Greg:  Merrifield’s Market.

MP: Merrifield’s Market? Wow.  See, we had no idea.
Greg: Maybe it was before your time.
Sandy: See honey, it would be.  We were in high school!
Greg: Well yeah, it would be!  I graduated from here, went to school at U of M, and then DCL [Detroit College of Law]. [My parents] sold the store while I was at U of M and moved over to Harbor Beach.  Now when I met her, she worked at the store.
But at school, she was a year behind me and we had nothing to do with one another.  I was the stuck-up kid from southern California.

MP: You were the California boy?
Sandy: Out there they didn’t date.  Everybody was in a group, and they were light years ahead of us.  And [back here in Marion] we were still like, ‘If you dated me, this was serious.’
Greg: [Here in Marion] If you took a girl out, then you were going with her, you know.
Sandy:  And so he was dating three of my girlfriends at the same time, and I was saying to them, ‘What is wrong with you guys?!?’

MP: And this is Marion back in the ‘60s and ‘70s!
Greg:  I came back up and worked at the store for the summer after my first year in college, and she was working there at that point.
MP: So you met because of the grocery store?
Greg:  Actually, we met through mutual friends, Dale Williams and Dawn Rockafellow-Williams, they had just gotten married and were friends to both of us.
Sandy:  I was going to see Dawn, and he was going to see Dale, and so every once in a while we’d run into each other.  And it was this time of the year when we met.
Greg:  Every once in a while they’d try to set us up.  And it stuck.

MP: It worked out pretty well.
Sandy:  When Greg moved to town – and he loved hunting and fishing – Dale VanderWal and Dale Williams took him hunting and fishing all the time.  [Greg] was like, ‘This is heaven, I’m not going back.’
Greg: Didn’t have it in southern California.
Sandy:  He said, I’m not moving.  I’m gonna stay here because I want some place to call home.
Greg:  I want roots. I missed that growing up.  Just didn’t have ‘em.  And I said my kids aren’t gonna have that.

MP: What were things like in the ‘60s and ‘70s around here?
Greg:  Weekend entertainment: you’d wear out a car cruising Main Street.  Where the Post Office is now, that was the turning point on the east; where the Whippy Dip is now was the turning point on the west.  And the cars would just go back and forth, all night long…
Sandy: In the summers, there were dances on Saturday nights; Friday or Saturday nights, and you’d go to the dance.  They were held in the town hall.  Frank Ettawageshik was the DJ.
Greg:  If you didn’t have something to do, you went downtown Main Street – that’s where the guys went to pick up women and the gals went to get picked up!  If you were really gonna do something though, you went to Cadillac; there was a place called the Platters’ – it’s where the Carl Johnson [Hunting and Fishing] Center is now – that was the dance place.  I saw Chicago there.

MP: We’ve heard there used to be a venue up there.
Sandy: It was huge, and everyone went but me.  Because my mom thought it was a sin! That was unacceptable behavior!

MP: And that’s another thing – I know you’ve been very involved with the church.  You had a drug problem, right? You were always drug to church?
Sandy:  Every Sunday! Well we [Community of Christ Church] were down at the corner where the Community MakerSpace is now, until I left for college.  And then while we were gone they built our church [south of town on M-66] and Greg and I had the first event ever at the church.
Greg:  Our wedding.
Sandy: They were still finishing the church – they were gonna have that first Sunday service and we got married March 3rd.  They were still varnishing things the night before.  That was in ’73.

MP: What has the church meant to you and your family?
Sandy:  Sometimes I think it’s a gift to have faith.  Some people have it and some people don’t.  And maybe being raised in a church I just did.  I don’t know why, but I just did.  And I’ve always been involved with all the other area churches – I don’t think there’s a right or wrong church; I think there’s good people, everywhere.

MP: And you’ve been involved with the school’s music program.  How’d that start?
Sandy: Greg Mikulich got me started.  I was pregnant with Michelle, and he was doing ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,’ and he needed some music.  He asked me in March and I had Michelle in April.  So at the time I was really pregnant.
He played the guitar for it, and it was really good.  He plays phenomenally; it’s one of his hidden talents.
That got me started and then Diana Rinehart was helping a little bit with music and then she said, ‘Would you please?’ And that got me started with solo and ensembles.
Greg: And so it’s been ever since.
Sandy: 39 years.

MP: And Greg, is being a lawyer something that you always wanted to do?
Greg:  My grandfather and dad were in the grocery business together.  Their store in San Jacinto was owned by a guy named Henry Wackerbarth – he was an attorney and a good friend of my grandfathers.  And my grandfather determined that I needed to be a lawyer.
I was in the 2nd grade and my grandfather took me down to Henry’s office and sat me in the client’s chair across from Henry.  It was like my grandpa [to do that], he was probably in his early 70s – gray hair, coat, tie; the whole shot – and he had Henry grill me.  And from that day on it was ordained by grandpa, and by my dad and Henry, that Greg was going to be an attorney.  It really wasn’t a choice.
Sandy:  He wanted to build houses, to be honest!
Greg:  I would’ve. It was ingrained that I was going to be an attorney.  Veterinarian was something, but I really don’t get along with blood all that well.  Back in the ‘50s, that’s what all parents wanted was their children to be a professional person, a doctor or a lawyer, and my granddad determined that a lawyer it was for me and that’s the way it went.

MP: And you run old man’s basketball at the high school, when did you start doing that?
Greg: It started out, we kind of rotated around who would open up, and if somebody couldn’t be there we’d make arrangements.  Dale Eising, Jim Blevins, Kim Knickerbocker, one of us would always be available to open it up, but it was kind of a shortened season.  When Dale left, it kind of migrated to me.  We’ve pretty much had it going year-round, but it gets slim pickings in the summer time.  Too many other things to do.
I’m kind of afraid that if I shut it down, that it won’t come back – or at my age, if I shut it down long enough, I won’t come back.  I won’t have the gumption to come back!  But I do enjoy it.  I look forward to Sunday night.  That’s about the only exercise that I really get.  I feel [the pain] Monday morning, but it’s a good feeling – you can tell you’ve done something; you’ve got those aches.
Sandy:  He walks in the door Sunday evening, and I say, ‘This is going to kill you someday.’ And he says, ‘I’ll go happy then!’ Playing basketball.
Greg: That’s right.

MP: And it’s not just old man basketball.  You’ve been doing the clock for home games.
Greg:  Same time frame: late 70s, early 80s.
Sandy:  Dick Swiler had done it before then.  Arlene had done the music probably 20 or 30 years, and she did the solo and ensemble and anything that they needed.  And Mr. Swiler had done the clock.

MP: So you guys just kind of filled their shoes.
Greg:  They moved out, and we moved in.
Sandy: They kinda said, ‘We’re tired, your turn.’ And she had played for me in high school solo and ensemble festival.  And I always said, ‘Can I pay you something?’ And she always said, ‘Just play it forward.’  Just do something and repay somebody and that’ll be my repayment.  I didn’t know it was going to be for 40 years!

MP: What is it about this community that has kept you here?  What do you enjoy the most?
Greg: The sense of community.  You know who lives down the road from you; you know who lives on the other side of town from you.
School has always been a very big factor.  There’s more to school than just education.  It’s variety; it makes a well-rounded person.  Whether you’re good at basketball or not, in a small school you can play; whether you’re good at football or not, you can play; whether you’re good at band or not, you can play in the band.
And it’s that multiplicity of experiences that makes the person.  You go to a bigger school and you don’t get that.  To be successful in life, I think you need to have a variety of experiences, and a small-town leads to that – it’s conducive to those variety of experiences.
And it comes back to the roots thing – I want a place where my kids can come home to, the same as when they were kids.  Stable; an environment.  So, we’ve got a vested interested in seeing the school in particular do well, and the town do the best that it can.

MP: The best advice that you’ve been given? Who have been some of your role models or mentors along the way?
Sandy: There’s so many.  In so many different ways, you know.
Greg:  Great Uncle Harold.  He was a metal-shop teacher at Battle Creek Central.  Never had any kids, his wife died from cancer at a very young age – and he was deeply in love with her.  Very straight person.  Very straight up – he was a Mason, a Shriner; a do-gooder.  And his lesson in life was do the best that you can, all the time.  Don’t hold anything back, leave it all on the table.  I think that was the best advice I ever got.  Always be able to look back on it and say I gave it all I had.
Sandy: Mine was probably Linda Baughan.  She was the coolest person in the whole wide world.  She was a cheerleader, and that’s all I got to do because we didn’t have anything – the year I graduated they started G.A.A. so girls could do something. But I was a cheerleader – and I was a good cheerleader!  I have to laugh at some of the things.  But Linda was a cheerleader and a baton twirler for the band. She was the coolest: she had angora sweaters, and a class ring with angora rounded.  And the cutest shoes.  I was always like: I’m gonna grow up and be just like her!  Everything she did she was good at, it seemed like.  She was 7 years older, so my elementary days were spent looking up to Linda.

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