Don Merrill’s first college experience has a familiar ring to it. Still figuring out his path in life, a teenaged Merrill decided to study business at a community college in his native Florida.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” he says, “and I thought you could always get a job with a degree in business.”
Like many of the students he would one day teach at Wingate, Merrill didn’t stick with his original plan. After taking a required psychology course, he ditched business and decided to get inside people’s heads for a living. While serving in the Army in the early ’70s, Merrill studied psychology at night, and he went on to get bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in the field.
This summer he will retire after a 41-year career teaching psychology and holding administrative positions at Wingate, one of the last holdovers from the days when the college was still a budding four-year institution. Other faculty members retiring this year include Dennis Harlow, professor of management, and George Schuppin, associate professor of physical therapy and director of the human anatomy lab.
Early on, psychology fascinated Merrill, especially the idea of helping people through tough times via counseling. He found that his appetite for knowledge about the subject couldn’t be satisfied. “I didn’t feel like I had to go on to school,” he says. “I wanted to.” But he struggled with his decision to stick with the subject because of a perceived notion that few jobs are available for psychology majors. “It was no more true then than it is now,” he says.
In fact, the list of potential jobs that fit psychology majors is long and varied: social worker, advertising agent, market researcher, probation officer, career counselor, childcare worker. And, yes, business leader. “We have often encouraged our psych majors to minor in management,” Merrill says.
Many of those career paths were covered by human services, one of only three majors offered at Wingate when Merrill was first hired to teach psychology, back in 1980. Wingate had only recently begun granting baccalaureate degrees, having been a junior college for over 55 years, and human services was a useful major for many students (and still is).
But by the 1990s, students had begun expressing interest in research opportunities and graduate programs in psychology. A more-robust program was clearly needed, and in 1995 psychology was added as a major.
It took off like a rocket. By 2000, twice as many students were majoring in psychology as in human services. Now, Wingate has roughly 220 psychology majors and about 60 human services majors (the same number as the University had in the mid-’90s). Psychology is the second-most-popular major in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Teacher at heart
Merrill says psychology’s popularity is due as much to the faculty members as to the subject matter. “They are just superb,” he says. “There are a lot of students like I was. They come here to study business or something else, and they’re required to take a social science course. They enroll in psychology, and they find the same kind of passion that I did a long time ago, and they end up changing their major.”
After helping the psychology major grow, Merrill became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in the early 2000s. Appreciating the variety his job presented, he made sure to always teach at least one class each semester, even while serving as dean for two decades and as the University’s director of assessment for a dozen years.
All the while, he kept the needs of his students and the community front and center. “Dean Merrill was always encouraging his students to pursue wholeheartedly an internship that would not only benefit them, but benefit the agency and population they serve,” says Jesse Granger, a 2018 Wingate grad, now a counselor and insurance coordinator for the Council on Aging in Monroe. “He prepared us not only for the internship, but for how our first professional jobs would be.”
Although in 1987 he became the first recipient of a Spivey Fellowship, which gave him a one-semester sabbatical to do research into counselors’ skills and the use of humor in counseling, Merrill says he never wanted to be stuck in a lab doing research all day. That made Wingate’s teaching focus perfect for him. And besides, he says, over the years the students have been “continually delightful.”
“The passion I had as a student, I often see that in them,” he says.
For years, Merrill has also served as an unofficial counselor for numerous faculty members, using his expertise to help his peers iron out wrinkles in their home and professional lives.
He and his wife, former longtime Wingate employee Pam Merrill, are planning to move closer to their children eventually. But until then, Merrill will still be available as a professionally trained sounding board.
“I plan to be around to drink coffee and have lunch and tell my colleagues about the good life,” he says.
Learn more about Wingate’s social science programs.
April 29, 2021