Richard Merriwether saw war-torn South Korea first hand. It was just after the Korean War, and the country was in shambles; serving in the U.S. Air Force, Merriwether said he'd never return.
Fast forward about 60 years, and Merriwether has to smile. He is returning to Busan, South Korea, in June to be sworn in as Delaware District Governor on the final day of the annual Lions Clubs International convention. “The country was almost in ruins, and I said I would never be back, but it's a beautiful place now,” he said.
As the first black district governor from Delaware, Merriwether, who is a member of the Rehoboth Beach Lions Club, will be among 740 district governors from the across the world who will be sworn in during the convention.
Although he has been a Lions Clubs International member for only eight years, he has risen to attain one of the highest positions in the organization. Merriwether has served as club secretary, president, board of directors member, zone and region chairman, and second and first district vice governor. He has also received some of the most prestigious awards for service to Lions as a Melvin Jones Fellow and recipient of the Jim McCarty and Ralph Helm awards. McCarty of Millsboro and Helm of Newark are past international directors.
Merriwether had to win districtwide elections to attain the district offices.
“Lions do great work,” he said. “My only regret is not being a member earlier in my life. I've never met a bad Lion.”
Merriwether, who is a U.S. Department of Defense retiree, has devoted most of his free time to community service. Before moving to this area, he served as a school board member, and president for two years, on the Charlottesville, Va., board of education. He ran twice unsuccessfully for school board in the Cape Henlopen School District, losing one race by just four votes.
He serves on the Sussex Family YMCA and the Cape Henlopen Senior Center board of directors and is a deacon at the Peoples Church of Dover.
Like a CEO without the pay
As district first vice governor, Merriwether has already had a busy year working for the district governor and attending Lions functions throughout Delaware and the multi-district, which includes Maryland. His schedule will only ramp up starting in June. One of the main requirements of the position is that he visits each one of the 35 clubs in Delaware.
Merriwether said the time commitment is demanding, and he points to his heart. “You have to have it right here,” he says. “It's not about you, and it's not about your resume.”
He is already setting goals and assigning volunteers to positions throughout the district. “It's like the job of a CEO – but not with CEO's pay,” he said with a smile. He said membership and developing strong leadership are mainstays within the Lions organization.
Merriwether is totally devoted to the volunteer work of Lions Clubs International. He spent this past weekend at a Lions governor's ball in Easton, Md.
It's Lions' work that has helped him cope with the loss of his wife 1 1/2 years ago. “Lions is what pulled me through by keeping me occupied,” he said.
Works for Department of Defense 34 years
Merriwether served nearly four years in the Air Force and used benefits from the G.I. Bill to get a Bachelor of Arts degree from University of California, Los Angeles, and a master's degree in public policy from Ohio University. He worked for the Department of Defense for 34 years where he graduated from the National War College and supervised the design and implementation of logistic systems for the military. He retired as a computer systems administrator.
He has three grown children and four grandchildren, with another due in June.
Living in this area has been an adjustment for Merriwether. “I'm a big-city boy, there is no doubt about it,” he said. He grew up in Indianapolis, Ind., and has lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Columbus, Ohio, and near Washington, D.C.
It was his wife who suggested the couple retire to Rehoboth Beach because they liked the beach and had visited the area several times on family vacations. “She picked Rehoboth Beach, so here I am,” he said.
“I have a lot of friends here, but no relatives, and I'm weighing that when I think about the next few years,” he said. “But there is a great possibility I'll be staying right here.”
That will be his future, especially if duty calls again, and Lions International has another task for him to complete.
Service is backbone of Lions International
The motto of Lions International is “We Serve.” Merriwether said most people associate Lions International with sight and eyeglass programs, and they would be right. “But we go way beyond eyeglasses and do whatever is needed. We are here to help,” he said.
That help could include providing a wheelchair to a local person with local club funds to donating millions of dollars from International Lions funds to Japanese tsunami victims.
Lions partner with the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins and also support the Leader Dogs for the Blind program in Rochester, Mich.
Another major Lions International initiative is a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in a worldwide effort to eradicate childhood measles. Merriwether said the foundation provides 50 percent matching funds to all dollars donated by Lions clubs through the Measles Initiative program.
Lions Clubs International was founded in the United States June 7, 1917, by Melvin Jones, a Chicago businessman who wanted to form an organization of businessmen who would join forces to help their communities. The organization was not open to women until the 1970s. Helen Keller, an honorary Lion, inspired club leadership in the 1920s to take on the plight of the blind.
There are several clubs in eastern Sussex County including Rehoboth Beach, Midway, Milton, Lewes, Fenwick Island and Dewey Beach – with nearly 100 members. There are 35 clubs in Delaware with more than 1,300 members. There are more than 1.3 million members worldwide with Lions serving their communities in 206 countries.