published: Friday, December 07, 2012
Chief bids farewell at party
ROXANNE BROWN | Staff Writer
Groveland police Chief Thomas "Tommy" R. Merrill announced his retirement in August, putting an end to a 43-year run as the city's top cop.
His final day was Friday, but not before a huge sendoff Thursday night from residents, employees, police officers, city and county officials, family members and friends, all gathered at the Puryear Building in his honor.
"I'm glad he's finally retiring so he can have a little fun, enjoy life," said Merrill's daughter Debbie Hartog, at the reception with two of 10 of Merrill's grandsons, 9-year-old twins Scott and Ryan. "He's definitely been such an influence on me my whole life and I couldn't be prouder of him.
"He hasn't really said it out loud to me, but I think he's ready (to retire)," she said.
Many in the crowd expressed mixed feelings of joy and sorrow.
When Merrill walked through the doors, he was greeted by applause and handshakes.
Merrill reciprocated but it soon became apparent he was having trouble holding back tears.
"I've always said that a guy needs to have his funeral before he dies so he can see how many friends he has. And although this is not a funeral, I can see that I sure have a lot," Merrill said.
"I've (worked for) seven mayors and four city managers and I know I'm gonna miss it, but I'm getting to the age that I want to do something else before I can't do anything at all."
On July 11, 2006, Merrill was recognized with the Distinguished Service Award from the Florida Peace Officers Association as the longest serving police chief in the nation. At that time, he'd served the city of Groveland for 37 years.
Merrill, now 69, was born and raised in Umatilla. After graduating, he joined served in the U.S. Air Force as a nuclear weapons specialist from 1959 to 1963.
When he returned, he ran a gas station in Umatilla.
Merrill said he had considered working for the highway patrol.
Merrill accepted a job as an officer with the Eustis Police Department in January 1966, but left the force at the urging of his family after a shootout. That was March of 1969.
In August of that same year, then-Sheriff Willis McCall approached Merrill about an open position in South Lake County.
"I've actually tried retiring several times, but as new city managers come in, they've asked me to stay because of my background and I've stayed. I've said to myself, 'I'll stay a little while longer, but then months turn to years and that's how it goes,'" Merrill said. "But I feel it's time to go. I'm under no pressure from the city, but if you talk to my mother and wife, that's a different story. They've been looking for me to retire for years."
His mother, Dot Merrill, 91, was at the farewell reception and said she's glad her son is retiring.
"I've after him for a long time to retire," she said. "It's getting rough out there and he's not as well as he used to be. He needs to do something different besides wear a gun. I'm very proud of everything he's done."
Merrill's wife of 15 years, Ginger, was all smiles, too.
"I'm so excited about starting this next chapter in our life," Ginger Merrill said. "He is so humble and so he doesn't see the big deal. He wanted to kind of just fade off into the sunset, but he's worked here for more than half his life."
Ginger said he and Merrill plan to spend time at a home they own in North Carolina and traveling throughout Florida.
In addition, she said she looks forward to spending time with Merrill on projects in their yard and garden.
Groveland police Lt. Gayle Beck, who's worked with Merrill for more than 30 years at the station, presented Merrill with his duty weapon, badge, uniform stars and name tag.
Officer Stephanie Crews, who leads the police explorers program, also presented Merrill with a plaque.
The department's annual calendar was dedicated to Merrill and his service, featuring a picture of Merrill today and one of his first identification card as issued to him in Aug. 1969.
"There have been mixed emotions at the police station all week. We're gonna miss him of course because he's made such an impact in the city and at the station for all those years, but we're also happy that's he is finally retiring. We're also anxious to see what's gonna happen with out new chief but it's bitterweet," Beck said. "I don't know what's it's gonna be like on Monday when we walk in to him gone for real."
Crews called Merrill "a great mentor and father figure."
"He's not only a wonderful law enforcement officer but a great human being. He has so much history in this community," Crews said.
Merrill said he thinks the station is in good hands with newly sworn-in Police chief Mark Palmer.
Palmer, a retired Lake County sheriff's deputy and state investigator, started at the station on Tuesday.
"I'm looking forward to getting to know and serve Groveland," Palmer said.
Merrill said Palmer should work out well.
"I think he's gonna be great for the city," Merrill said of the new chief. "He's younger, very well educated and I think he'll be able take the department far. I've known him for years, too.
"He used to tell me that he'd like a shot at the chief's job when I retire, so when I announced it, I called him and said, Put your application in, and he did," Merrill said.