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Political patriarch dies at 86

Merrigan served as selectman, county commissioner

Thomas W. Merrigan, the 86-year-old former Greenfield selectman and Franklin County commissioner who helped turn the tide in the region’s political persuasion, died Saturday at his home after a long illness.

Merrigan, who grew up in South Deerfield and served in the Army in the aftermath of World War II, returned to Greenfield to raise a family of eight and become a reporter for The Greenfield Recorder-Gazette for 22 years, from 1948 to 1969. He left to start a family real estate business with his wife, Marguerite, who predeceased him in 2008.

Merrigan’s interest in public affairs was inspired by his mother, Tessie Tucker Merrigan, a graduate of Westfield Teachers College. His years as a reporter of covering town politics stirred Merrigan to become more involved, and he thought, “I’m sure I can make decisions as well as these guys,” according to a 1978 account in The Recorder. “Some people like to play golf or stop off at the Elks Club after work, I like to be part of government.”

He ran for a Greenfield selectmen’s seat in 1967 and was elected, creating the first Democratic majority on the three-member board and serving two three-year terms. During that period, the state built a new skating arena in town, the town opened a landfill and the annual budget nearly doubled, from less than $6 million to more than $11 million.

In 1970, he campaigned to become the first Democratic member of the Franklin County Commissioners board, a three-member panel that oversaw the functions of county government, which was abolished in 1995.

Merrigan, a visionary who saw the need for a regional approach to better serve the needs of Franklin County, especially in relation to the eastern-dominated state government, promised in his campaign to be “an activist,” and recalled at his retirement from the board in 1978, “There were changes going on in society in the early 1970s. I thought there should also be changes in society’s government.”

Emphasizing regionalism throughout his time as commissioner, Merrigan was instrumental in creating the state’s first regional housing authority, regional transit authority, solid waste district, regional technical school, as well as a regional planning department and human services department within county government.

“Franklin County, back in those days, was still a relatively provincial place, and everybody did things individually, and Tom was progressive enough to see that probably couldn’t last forever,” recalled Fred Muehl, whom Merrigan hired in 1971 as the county’s sole planner. “He was the political champion of regionalism out there, and I think the county was better off for having that mindset.”

Merrigan was “one of the leading figures in the political transformation of Franklin County that moved from Republican to Democratic control in town and state offices,” said Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst. “Tom worked in a quiet but very effective way. Moving people into politics and getting good people elected into office — not the least of whom were family members. He was a patriarch who inspired his sons to see the value of public service and participate actively in the county.”

Merrigan, who had been a 1945 Deerfield Academy alumnus, returned to the University Without Walls school to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science from the University of Massachusetts in 1978, and immediately enrolled in Western New England University Law School to earn a law degree at 55.

His son, Thomas T. Merrigan, a lawyer who served for 12 years as a district court judge before resigning to practice law again, said his father taught him by example, “the courage to take chances in his career. He reinvented himself many times and was unconventional” to go to law school in mid-life and practice law for nearly three decades. “He showed how to lean into a challenge, and there was an ever-present sense of having faith.”

At a time when a twin nuclear power plant was proposed for the Montague Plains, he said he convinced his father to take a stand against the nuclear plant as “something so big it would change drastically the quality of life here,” County Commissioner Merrigan was quoted as saying.

John F. Merrigan, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a Greenfield selectman before serving as a state representative and then becoming probate court clerk, said he was inspired as a boy watching his father’s active involvement in town and county government and his emphasis on providing for public education, human services and infrastructure, with the assistance of professionals working in local government.

“When I was a selectman, he was always encouraging me to look at economic development initiatives,” he recalled of his father. “He used to talk about building capacity to seek out state and federal grants, and how we needed to approach Boston as a region to make sure that our voice always was heard.”

Merrigan practiced law privately and although he ran unsuccessfully twice, in 1976 and 1982, for clerk of courts, he served briefly in 1989 as an assistant district attorney as well as an assistant clerk of superior court.

Merrigan, who was born Feb. 19, 1927 in Montague City, enjoyed researching and documenting family history and last year wrote and published “Remembering Hannah,” the account of his mother-in-law’s journey from Ireland to Holyoke, along with “Sugarloaf Street: A Memoir,” recounting his own childhood in South Deerfield.

At the time of his death, he was writing another memoir dedicated to his love affair with his wife, whom he met when they were both 13 and married eight years later. They were together for 60 years.

“He really had a deep caring for people,” said Mary Lou Forbes, who together with her husband Willett “Bill” Forbes, were close friends with Merrigan and his wife. She followed Merrigan as a county commissioner, and her husband, who served with Merrigan as a selectman, added, “We didn’t always agree, but even when we disagreed, he’d share with me how I could go about presenting my case. It was extraordinary. He loved politics ... it was an avocation for him.”

Merrigan got his start in politics at a time when selectmen were used to getting frequent calls from disgruntled residents to fix their problems, and a time when, in Muehl’s words, “people used common sense before we got into this partisan stuff.”

He relished playing a key role in it as a way of helping people.

“Government is people, too,” Merrigan told The Recorder in 1978. “It has a responsibility for things other than buildings and hardware. It has a responsibility to show it has some humanity. I tried to make government as human as possible.”

You can reach Richie Davis at:
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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