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John Graham Merkle

The Oak Ridger logo The Oak Ridger 1/20/2021 Special to The Oak Ridger, Oakridger
a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: John Graham Merkle © Special to The Oak Ridger John Graham Merkle

John Graham Merkle, 86, passed away peacefully from complications of COVID-19 at home in Oak Ridge, Tenn., on Jan. 16, 2021.

John was born just ahead of his identical twin brother, Douglas, to John William Merkle and Grace Graham (Hall) Merkle on July 31, 1934, in Detroit, Mich. John spent his early years in Ann Arbor, Mich., before the family moved to Darien, Conn., on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1941.

Intellectual pursuits were encouraged by his parents, and John developed an abiding interest in mathematics. He enjoyed drawing, reading action stories, editing news articles for the Darien High School newspaper, and performing in theater productions. He and his brother were involved in Boy Scouting throughout their youth, were summer Scout camp counselors at Camp Toquam, and attained the rank of Eagle Scout. John played high school lacrosse and football as well.

He entered Cornell University, intending to become a journalist, but switched majors halfway through, completing a five-year degree in civil engineering in three years. John sailed with the U.S. Navy ROTC during his college summers, and entered active duty with the Navy’s Mobile Construction Battalion upon graduation, serving from 1957-1960. He also completed Naval Justice School training and served as a military legal advocate.

A highlight of John’s college career was a fortuitous meeting with Marilyn Steffen during his senior year while both were freshmen orientation counselors. He kept in touch with Marilyn after graduation while on naval cruises to Morocco, Spain, and Panama, and called her for a date when he came into port in Hartford, Conn. Marilyn, who was working as a dietitian, accepted a flurry of dates with John. He followed up with many letters, which culminated in a marriage proposal that began a lasting partnership of 61 years.

John and Marilyn married on May 9, 1959, in Rochester, N.Y., moved with the Navy to Port Hueneme, Calif., and began their family. In 1960, they returned to Cornell, where John received a master’s in civil engineering. In 1962 he accepted a position with Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a research engineer. He became an expert in the field of fracture mechanics related to the safety of nuclear pressure vessels, specifically behaviors of concrete and metals under stress.

Neighbors in Karns, where John and Marilyn lived for 54 years, periodically called upon him for help with complex calculations, and he was happy to comply. John treasured his professional associations through his work at “the Lab,” and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe as a consultant on various nuclear power projects. He was a respected member of the American Society for Testing and Materials, and was awarded its top prize, the George Irwin Medal. He was invited to deliver the Jerry Swedlow Memorial Lecture in fracture mechanics and received the Ed Wessel Award from ASTM as well. He was a lifelong member of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

John and Marilyn made friends throughout their travels and invited countless students and colleagues into their home for dinner and further conversation. Central to John’s life was his membership at Grace Lutheran Church in Oak Ridge. He served the congregation as treasurer, Sunday School superintendent, property committee chair, and church council member. He was devoted to his Lutheran faith, and his family knew that they would always be the last ones to turn out the lights after services.

John was deeply involved in Boy Scouting in Karns, serving as troop committee chairman while his sons were active Scouts, and enjoyed camping, hiking, and serving the community in many capacities.

John was preceded in death by his parents, his twin brother, Doug, and his first grandson, Jacob Wootten.

He is survived by his loving wife, Marilyn, his children, Susan Wootten (Michael) of Minneapolis, Minn., Jeanne McKinley (Shane) of Great Falls, Va., Eric Merkle (Sara) of Signal Mountain, Tenn., and Kurt Merkle (Catherine O’Grady) of Fort Mill, S.C., grandchildren, Ben, Beth, and Molly Wootten, Grace and Cecelia McKinley, Jessica Merkle, and Steffen, Lewis, and Daniel M, and many treasured in-laws, nieces, and nephews. 

Our family is grateful for the kindness of John’s caregivers at Commonwealth Senior Living, Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and for his care by his physicians, nursing professionals, and caregivers from Home Instead and Care Around the Block who allowed John the grace of an additional decade of life after his cancer diagnosis. In lieu of an immediate service, the family will hold a socially-distanced reception of friends from 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, at Weatherford Mortuary, Oak Ridge, Tenn. A graveside service will be held 1 p.m. Saturday at Oak Ridge Memorial Park. A formal religious service will follow later at Grace Lutheran Church, when all can gather safely.

Memorials may be sent to Grace Lutheran Church of Oak Ridge, Tenn.; the Smoky Mountain Council of Boy Scouts of America; the Ecumenical Storehouse of Oak Ridge; or Lutheran World Relief.

Weatherford Mortuary is in charge of arrangements. An online guestbook is available at 

This article originally appeared on Oakridger: John Graham Merkle


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