With her days at Sampson County Schools coming to a close, Ann Merritt was ready to meet a local reporter. But she was shocked to see a room filled with smiling faces.
After serving the local school district for 38 years, the executive administrative assistant was honored with a surprise retirement ceremony Monday. With family members present, a humble Merritt went around the room and hugged everyone who came to say farewell.
“I am truly touched, surprised …,” Merritt said. “Oh my goodness, I was very surprised today and I’ve enjoyed working with each person and I will miss all of you. I will miss you.”
During her tenure, which is close to four decades, she worked for seven full-time superintendents and one interim. Her journey began Jan. 2, 1978 when she worked as the secretary for the personnel department. Later, that position was followed by 27 years in the superintendent’s office, which was occupied by the late Chip Zullinger at the time. Her predecessor Lila Mae Rose assisted superintendents for 28 years.
“We have a combined service record of 55 years, which I think is unique,” Merritt said.
During the ceremony, Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy and school leaders attended to show their appreciation for Merritt’s work.
“There’s so many adjectives that come to mind tonight when I think about how I would describe Mrs. Merritt,” Bracy said.
One of the words he used was consistency, which drew laughter from personnel who worked with Merritt.
“Mrs. Merritt likes things a certain way at a certain time,” Bracy said.
Another word Bracy used was professionalism while sharing touching stories, before reminding the crowd about her 38 years of service. He added that Merritt has so many of the same qualities of his mother, who passed away.
“As much as I hate to see her leave, if there’s anybody that has earned their retirement — it’s Mrs. Ann Merritt,” Bracy said. “She’s earned her retirement and I’ll miss so many things about her. I’ll miss her friendly manner. I’ll miss her wisdom, she’s a smart person. And I’ll miss her guidance.”
While talking about Merritt, he referenced a portion of Ecclesiastes: 3:1 — “To every thing, there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”
“For the last 38 years it’s been Mrs. Ann Merritt’s season to be with us at Sampson County Schools,” he said. “That season will end (soon). It would be selfish of us to want her to stay. But here’s the good news: she’s in good health and has got a lot of living to do.”
“The thing that I love about you is that it’s important to you that Sampson County Schools continues to do well,” Bracy said.
Dewain Sinclair, chairman of the Sampson County Schools Board of Education, has known Merritt for several years and talked about her professionalism as a clerk to the board.
“She’s top-notch and diligent in everything that she does,” Sinclair said. “She follows through and she’ll go the extra mile to make sure the job gets done in a professional matter.”
In addition to her work, Sinclair said Merritt was a warm and kind person.
“I always feel better when I end a conversation before I did when I got on the phone with Mrs. Ann,” Sinclair said about communicating with Merritt for school business. “She would pick you up and your spirits would be better.”
Familiar faces from the past also attended. Some of them included Dr. Ethan Lenker, Dr. Stewart Hobbs, Gary Weeks and Mike Warren. Rep. Larry Bell, a former superintendent for Sampson County Schools, commended her for her role, especially when it came to securing important information. He hopes that Merritt enjoys her retirement.
“The thing that I liked about her was confidentiality,” Bell said. “When you’re a superintendent you see a lot of documents and things that others in the office may not be able to see. I never had any problem with her breaking that confidence.”
Board member Faye Gay shared same of the same sentiments when it came to her professionalism, friendship and mentioned fun shopping trips. Gay also brought up how Merritt did not release too much private information — even to her.
“I know Ann, I can get in there and get the scoop on everybody, especially the superintendent,” Gay said in a amusing manner. “But oh no, Ann was very professional. Did she give any secrets out? Not one.”
“Professionalism, punctuality, purchasing power and proficiency,” Gay said using words to describe her friend. “When you’re working in the central office and you’re the secretary to the superintendent, there’s a lot of calls that are not very pleasant. She’s the first person they talk to and she’s the one that sets the tone before the superintendent gets that call. She’s very proficient in what she does.”
Gay added that Merritt was a team player who worked with all facets of the school system very well.
“And for that, we’re eternally grateful,” Gay said. “We appreciate all 38 years that you have given to Sampson County Schools.”
Before working for Sampson County Schools, Merritt graduated from Clinton High School and earned a degree from Campbell University. Her husband, Jerry, served in the military during the Vietnam War and Merritt lived in a few states because of her husband’s occupation. After he retired, they returned to the area. They have two children, Jeffrey and Jennifer. When they became older, Merritt began employment with the school system.
Many things have changed over the years, but Merritt stressed the importance of supporting teachers and applauded them for their work.
“I can share with you a personal observation that numerous initiatives have been implemented over the years, making for constant change for our students and teachers,” Merritt said. “The demands placed on teachers, staff members and students have always been great. Our teachers are a dedicated group of professional employees.”
She enjoyed watching the district grow through building programs.
“It has been interesting to watch the Board of Education approve the construction of a new school, to see the plans presented by the architect, to hear the progress reports, and to be privileged to attend the building dedication,” Merritt said.
Merritt’s last day in the school district’s central office is this Tuesday, May 31. She sat at the same desk for 27 years and has been in the same building for 38 years. During retirement, she hopes to volunteer at her church by helping needy families and feeding players from Clinton High School’s football team during the season.
“This office has always allowed me to be a Dark Horse fan,” Merritt said with a chuckle about her alma mater, which is not serviced by the Sampson County school district. “Every superintendent has understood.”
Her work will be picked up by Jackie Chabot, who was recently introduced by the Board of Education.
“I have been proud and fortunate to be an employee of Sampson County Schools,” Merritt said. “It is my sincere desire that time will prove that I did indeed assist in helping the superintendents and Boards of Education to be successful in leading this school system. I would like to think that I made their jobs easier.”
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.