Where 43 years of teaching lands you in life: checking in with retired UNH Prof. Merton

By Tim Drugan-Eppich

Staff Writer

Cruising into the halfway point of the semester, many freshmen are beginning to get a hang of the college lifestyle, and seniors are simultaneously trying to grasp the concept of not returning next year.  But there is someone who didn’t come to school this year, someone who had been coming to the University of New Hampshire since 1972.

Last May, UNH said goodbye to Andrew Merton, who had been teaching in the English department for 43 years. Some of that time was even spent as the chair of the English department. So what does someone do when the commitments they have had during those four decades are no longer relevant?

“My focus now—and the subject that links my career and my retirement endeavors—is poetry,” Merton said.

With his second book of poetry coming out in just a couple weeks from Accents Publishing, “Lost and Found,” Merton is continuing into retirement with a passion that he found while still teaching.

Merton’s former colleagues Charles Simic and Mekeel McBride, both professors in the English department, allowed him the opportunity to sit in on graduate-level poetry classes. These classes were where Merton found himself at peace.

Merton shared his experience on national television in 1985 for a critique on fraternities titled “Return to Brotherhood,” published in “Ms. Magazine.”  He was flown to New York, chauffeured around in a limo and put up in the finest hotel, all to speak about his piece on “The Phil Donahue Show” (now called “Donahue”).  But after his trip home, he got back just in time for McBride’s poetry class.

Settling into his chair after the hectic trip into the national limelight, Merton decided, “This is where I belong.”

“Lost and Found” has already gained some positive feedback.

“Andrew Merton has masterfully condensed his life into potent, brilliantly-composed, minimalist snapshots,” said Jessica Bell in a literary comment on the Accents Publishing website. “Chronologically arranged, delicately layered, and driven by savage honesty and subtle tenderness, “Lost and Found” is an intense injection of love, loss, loneliness, and above all, the unrelenting question of one’s existence.”

Having more time to focus on poetry in the beginning of a new stage of life also leads to some reflection on a long career of teaching at UNH, a career that Merton never anticipated.

“I’m an accidental academic,” he said.

Merton stressed that his undergraduate education at UNH was anything but focused.  His choice of major changed several times, starting as a business major, then changing to psychology for a few years, until he took an abnormal psych class.

“I started seeing in myself (what) we learned about,” he said. “Paranoid schizophrenic, anything, you name it.  It was pretty creepy.”

He then moved to history because he “figured studying dead people was safer.”

But his time as a student was spent writing for “The New Hampshire,” and playing bass guitar in a rock band named The Checkmates.  The band toured Northern New England colleges, earning him a paycheck.

“I made my entire college tuition playing for that band,” he said.

After he graduated, Merton wrote for a few newspapers, but ended up back at UNH when the paper he was writing for, “The Boston Herald Traveler,” folded.  It was a two-year contract offered by his former mentor Don Murray that turned into 43 years of devoted commitment.

“I had no idea what I was doing when I first started teaching,” Merton said.

Winding up in a teaching position left Merton a little lost at first.  The fact that he had no idea what he was doing led him to use what he knew, and what he knew was newspapers.  Merton utilized the environment of a newsroom to convey to students and teachers alike what needed to be done.

“He could be blunt, and at times tough, but he was clear and you knew where you stood with him,” said English Professor Tom Newkirk, an old colleague of Merton’s.

This blunt demeanor earned him the nickname “The Mertonator,” but over time, he relaxed his teaching style.

“I stopped being a tough guy all semester,” Merton said.

While he became slightly softer as semesters progressed, Merton used his blunt teaching style early on to send a message to young college students.

“I wanted them to know that you’re an adult now, and it is time to take things seriously,” he said.

Merton’s teaching career did not just have a profound effect on him, but he also impacted those around him.

He had a student named Barbara Walsh who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her work for the “Eagle-Tribune” on the Massachusetts prison system.  Merton flunked her in a magazine course for missing the deadline on her final portfolio, a move Merton says taught her to take deadlines seriously.

“I felt like the early math teachers who flunked Einstein,” he said.

Another example was Alice McDermott, who also took a magazine course with Merton while getting her MA in fiction.  Merton says she told him that his class made her sure that she wanted to be a fiction writer.  She would go on to win the National Book Award for her novel titled “Charming Billy.”

“Andy Merton was a no bull—- guy—in his writing, his teaching, and, in the last part of his long career here, his chairmanship of the department,” Newkirk said.

As Newkirk referenced, Merton served as chair of the department for 6 years, 6 years that were kept distraction-free.

“He could cut through the verbiage of department meetings, and keep us all on course,” Newkirk remembered.

But eventually, Merton decided it was time to throw in the towel.  Born on May 12, 1944, Merton retired as a birthday present to himself  about 71 years later.  A birthday, Merton was quick to note, that is shared by the late, great Yogi Berra.  And Merton’s favorite Yogi Berra quote?

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”