Dr. John Cary Merritt made it his lifelong goal to preach a healthy lifestyle of exercising and eating right, and encouraged many students to start those good habits at a young age. Over the years, he took that message into schools, wrote about it in newspaper columns and encouraged kids on tennis courts across the community.
Merritt passed away last Sunday, April 3, at Duke University Hospital in Durham at the age of 71, concluding a life of teaching and encouragement.
Possibly the most spry senior one might ever meet, Merritt practiced the healthy lifestyle he preached. He was a familiar sight around the community, strolling with a strut and nearly always wearing his wardrobe of tennis shoes, sweatpants and a sweatshirt, often emblazoned with his alma mater Hampton University across the front.
His contribution to fitness in the school systems, his work with Clinton City Schools’ tennis teams and his adamant focus on fitness and health was unquestionable. He implored everyone to do what they could to be healthier, offering them advice and even his own recipes — often making tofu and soy concoctions himself and bringing them to people at work — all designed to help cut down on obesity.
The fight against childhood obesity was one of his main battles, and he addressed local school boards on many occasions about the importance of that issue and the need to modify daily eating habits. For about the past 15 years, he worked closely with Jeff Swartz, child nutrition director for Clinton City Schools, to incorporate a healthier menu in the school system.
Merritt operated an ophthalmologist practice on Beaman Street for many years, but spent a large amount of his time volunteering in the schools and community.
“John Merritt loved this community, and particularly its young people, and he worked tenaciously to improve life for everyone,” said Sampson Independent Publisher/Editor Sherry Matthews, who published dozens upon dozens of articles penned by Merritt on kidney, liver and heart health, prostate and breast cancer awareness, diabetes, sugar intake and its effect on the body and myriad other subjects affecting the human body.
“He believed strongly in being healthy and wanted others to learn to live healthy lifestyles, and he worked furiously toward that goal, providing school-based nutrition classes and writing a weekly column for many years for us here at the newspaper,” said Matthews.
With Swartz, Merritt engaged in taste testing, work-shopping healthy ingredients to revamp school menus, all on his own time. He did some work at the high school level, but most of his focus was on elementary and middle schools.
“He did a lot of volunteer classes and taste testing with me, trying to manage children’s eating habits and incorporating tofu and things that were not offered,” Swartz said. “He was passionate about what everyone else was eating because he wanted them to be healthy.”
He would volunteer with Clinton tennis teams, working with them at the sport he loved, while also offering them some nutritional tips about the benefits of supplementing water hydration with regular doses of coconut water and soy milk.
“He used to always say ‘a little bit won’t hurt you,’” said Swartz.
He assisted in coaching tennis and organizing after-school clubs, also spearheading a tennis camp at Royal Lane Park in 2006 through SMARRT (Science, Math, Arts, Reading Recreation and Technology), teaching middle school students about tennis.
“I would love to keep on doing these because I want to stay involved with the kids,” Merritt said in 2006, following the inaugural camp. “It’s very important to me.”
He touted tennis as a lifelong sport, one that could be enjoyed at old age that would, in turn, help keep one healthy. Teaching tennis opened a door to children, giving them an opportunity to learning something new in the fundamentals of a beautiful sport, while having fun and keeping fit at the same time, Merritt said.
When a child first picked up a racket and struggled, he always offered words of wisdom and encouragement.
“Why can’t we nurture one of these (students from) so-called level 1 or level 2 schools right on through the high school ranks and turn it into a full ride for the kids who put their all into it?” Merritt asked. “We can’t say that it can’t be done because Althea Gibson went to Williston High School in Wilmington and won back-to-back Wimbledons (1957-58).”
A tennis historian, Merritt also wrote several columns on Gibson and other African-American tennis players and their impact during the height of the civil rights movement. Gibson also won back-to-back U.S. Opens those same years, already having a French Open title in 1956. She was inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971.
“She was right down the road from us,” Merritt said, “so you never know what is hiding until you allow someone to try.”
He nurtured the children so they could reach their potential and urged them to try new things — whether in their life or on their plate.
“John did this, not for any acclaim it might bring him, but because he had a passion for helping others,” said Matthews. “John was kind, fun-loving and yet very serious-minded, and believed strongly in doing his part for his fellow man. He will be missed by this community and by me personally.”
Swartz agreed that Merritt’s loss will leave a void.
“I will remember him as a passionate person who never met a stranger,” he said. “Everyone was his friend.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.