Kenneth Merrell: 1957–2011

We remember a professor emeritus, a licensed school psychologist, a published author, a husband and father, and an inspiration

By Melissa Holland

Kenneth Merrell: 1957–2011When Kenneth W. Merrell passed away on Friday, August 19, 2011, anyone ever touched by his life, including the field of psychology at large, suffered a great loss. Ken, at the age of 53, died after a yearlong battle with colon cancer. He faced the challenges of his illness and the prospect of death as he lived: with integrity, grace, courage, humor, and humility. There are few people that, even in their darkest hour, inspire us with their wisdom and light. Ken Merrell did just that, and was an inspiration to the academic world and to all who knew him.

Ken was born on November 24, 1957, in Vancouver, Washington, to Robert and Janett Merrell, both of whom were elementary school teachers. He was the fourth of five boys. Ken met his wife Susan in Corvallis, Oregon, while he was working on his Bachelor of Science. They were married on December 19, 1981. In addition to his wife, Ken is survived by his four children, Emily Merrell Garrett, Daniel Merrell, Benjamin Merrell, and Joanna Merrell, and his two grandchildren. Ken was a bit of a naturalist, greatly enjoying the outdoors, including hiking, rafting, exploring, spending time at the beach with his family, and photographing his numerous adventures. In addition to his travels, Ken was a prolific writer and avid reader. A history buff at heart, Ken also had a miraculous memory and wonderful gift of storytelling. It was simply enthralling to spend time with him.

Before his death, Ken was given the prestigious title of professor emeritus of school psychology at the University of Oregon (U of O), where he served as director and codirector of the nationally recognized school psychology program from 2001–2011. He also served as the head of the department of special education and clinical sciences at U of O from 2005 through 2009. Ken received his PhD in school psychology at the U of O in 1988 and held tenured faculty positions at Utah State University and the University of Iowa before returning to the U of O in 2001. Ken felt blessed to have returned to his alma mater and lived his final years in Oregon.

In addition to his academic work, Ken was a licensed psychologist and credentialed school psychologist. Before entering academia he worked for 3 years as a school psychologist for a public school district, as a psychologist in a private practice setting, and throughout the years he held various consulting positions in schools. Ken brought his rich experiences from the schools and his practice into his teaching, breathing life into the theories and science that drive practice. In addition to his experiences, Ken’s dry sense of humor (Gary Larson’s The Far Side being a personal favorite of his) and occasional impersonations of Elvis during his lectures created a priceless learning environment. Indeed, his classes were consistently sought after and he was a favorite professor among students.

Ken’s research and scholarly work in social–emotional assessment and interventions in schools has been widely published and has altered our understanding of social–emotional learning in children. In 2001, Ken founded the Oregon Resiliency Project (ORP). The ORP quickly became nationally and internationally known as a powerhouse of research, training, and practice in the field of social–emotional assessment and intervention for school-age children. Stemming from his work with the ORP came his critically acclaimed Strong Start, Strong Kids programs, widely used today throughout the country and even worldwide as a staple social–emotional learning curriculum in grades K–12.

Ken’s publications were extensive. He authored more than 120 published works, including many journal articles, 12 books, 17 book chapters, 9 assessment tools, and 7 intervention curricula. Earlier this year, Ken was given the Senior Scientist award by APA Division 16 (School Psychology), the highest honor bestowed by the division on a school psychology scholar. Ken was also the founding series editor of Guilford Press’ Practical Intervention in the Schools book series, which includes more than 30 practitioner-focused volumes. This series is widely used among school practitioners and has gained critical acceptance among researchers as well. His book (with Ruth Ervin and Gretchen Gimpel Peacock), School Psychology for the 21st Century: Foundations and Practices (2006, revised edition in 2011), is widely used in school psychology training programs. In addition to his various scholarly writings, Ken in recent years wrote and published a volume of his own personal heritage, entitled Scottish Shepherd: The Life and Times of John Murray Murdoch, Utah Pioneer. This book won the David W. & Beatrice C. Evans Handcart Award.

Ken’s work also garnered the attention of the popular media, including being interviewed by U.S. News and World Report, Family Circle, The Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, and other national print and electronic media outlets, and he was an invited guest on television’s Dr. Phil Show.

Perhaps Ken’s greatest joy was mentoring his students. He was always eager to include his present and former students in both his research and his scholarly writings. His compassion for his students and his drive to help them succeed under his guidance was inspiring. Ken, in his acceptance speech for the Outstanding Contributions to Training Award at the 2011 NASP convention, stated:

And, most of all, to the many graduate students in school psychology with whom I have had the honor of serving as advisor, mentor, teacher, and supervisor. Thank you for your commitment to promoting the education and mental health of all children, even when it was a stretch to reach the expectations I set for you. Your struggles became my struggles, and your triumphs have been a source of great inspiration to me.

That was a remarkable thing about Ken; he always knew the right thing to say. He had a way of making even the most challenging situation seem surmountable, framing it as an opportunity for growth and wisdom. Ken said, several months before his death, “The most difficult of life’s circumstances, our greatest perceived tragedies, oftentimes become our best teachers and afford us the most freedoms.”

Although it is hard for us who have been touched by Ken to understand the lesson here during this time of great sorrow, there is solace in knowing he is now free from the pain he endured from cancer. Even in death, Ken continues to inspire, mentor, and teach us all about life.