Merrill remembered for his leadership, sense of humor

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Family and friends gathered on the State House lawn in Concord Friday to celebrate the life of former Gov. Stephen E. Merrill. (Paula Tracy photo)

CONCORD - New Hampshire's 77th governor, Stephen E. Merrill, was remembered Friday for his leadership, good humor, and for helping to define the Granite State and its advantage.

More than 100 past and present state leaders - wearing masks and seated apart from each other on the State House lawn - gathered to remember a man who was once attorney general and chief counsel for former Gov. John H. Sununu before he took the job in the corner office in 1992.

The elder Sununu said he would be upbeat about the memorial service, though he choked back the emotion when leading off the speakers for the memorial service.

He said he needed a lawyer as governor and was directed to a young man just out of the Air Force a few years who was a trial lawyer. It was Steve Merrill.

"Steve Merrill was a serious person on serious issues. But he didn't take himself too seriously," the elder Sununu said.

Sununu said he did not recall the specifics of their first meeting other than they laughed a lot and both agreed they had no idea what they were going to do going forward.

The two dealt with serious issues but were determined to change the way the state does business.
And he said, "I needed someone to keep me out of trouble."

Merrill, a Republican, was one to think outside the box, Sununu said, but more than anything, he was about having fun with the process of governing.

Gov. Chris Sununu said Merrill had a way of translating the "New Hampshire Advantage," an expression Merrill coined, to the individual.

While it was a memorial service, the governor said, "I consider it a celebration of an individual who did so much for our state; a celebration of what public service is all about."Stephen Merrill of Miami, the son of the former governor, said his father was looking down on the gathering. He said his father was very devoted to his family and the state of New Hampshire and continuing the "New Hampshire Advantage."

That "advantage" at its core was Merrill's contention that the state benefited by not having either a sales or income tax. That allowed the state to flourish and grow to be the best state in the country to start a business and raise a family, he believed.

Merrill also championed a commitment to freedom, liberty, and rights of the individual, the elder Sununu said. "We truly shall miss him."

Former Gov. Craig Benson, former Attorney General, and U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, former Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, and Ian Merrill, the late governor's son, also spoke.

The event was attended by U.S. Sens. and former Democratic governors Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, U.S. Congressman Chris Pappas, Senate President Donna Soucy, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, and many others. Merrill died Sept. 5 at his home in Manchester at the age of 74.

Born in Norwich, Conn., June 21, 1946, he grew up in Hampton, attended Winnacunnet High School, and the University of New Hampshire before going to law school at Georgetown, where he edited the law journal.

A member of the U.S. Army Air Force ROTC unit, he was named colonel at UNH and went on to be the legal counsel to the Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, attaining the rank of captain.

He returned to his home state and became a partner with the law firm of Devine, Millimet, Stahl, and Branch, where he became a trial lawyer.

After serving as John Sununu's legal counsel, he was later tapped to be attorney general by Sununu.

Merrill served for two, two-year terms as governor following Judd Gregg and stepped down, deciding not to run for a third term to spend more time at home with his young family. He returned to private practice.

Ayotte spoke about losing her "mentor."

"I know if Steve were here right now, he would be dishing out the one-liners and we would have all been laughing," Ayotte said. "He could have easily become a comedian."

Comedians have deep insight, she said, and Merrill had plenty of that. Ayotte said he was a proud UNH graduate, was incredibly smart and charming with his smile.

As attorney general, he went to autopsies, murder scenes and he actually tried cases that were some of the toughest.

"He stood by me when I lost," Ayotte said, when she ran for re-election as a U.S. Senator, which spoke to his true character. The one job he loved the most was being a father, she said.

Broderick called Merrill his best friend and noted they agreed to each eulogize the other but Merrill said he wanted to eulogize Broderick first, to great laughter.

"He was the single most interesting person I have ever known," Broderick said. Gov. Sununu said before embarking on his pursuit of the governorship, he asked some former governors for their real core advice about the job.
With pen in hand, Sununu said he went to see Steve Merrill.

"Be genuine," is the first and only advice Merrill gave.
It's a lesson for life, the governor said.

Merrill is survived by his wife, Heather, and two sons, Ian and Stephen, and their families.

Paula Tracy writes for the NH news nonprofit

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