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Column: A coin toss officially secured the job for Hall County’s coroner
Johnny Vardeman

Marion Merck has been Hall County coroner for 32 years, but if not for winning a flip of a coin, he might never have run for the office.

Barber John Hooper, who was coroner at the time, called Merck to tell him he would not seek re-election in 1988. Merck went to Hall County Courthouse just before the deadline to qualify to run for the office and ran into one of his closest friends, Joe Hadden.

“What are you running for?” Merck asked Hadden. “Coroner,” Hadden replied. “So am I,” Merck responded. 

“Well, I’m not going to run against you,” Hadden said. “And I’m not going to run against you,” Merck told Hadden.

So, they decided to go outside the courthouse and flip a coin, with the winner running for coroner. Merck won, and he has continued to win eight four-year terms, usually without opposition, making him the longest-serving coroner in Hall County history.

Manager of Memorial Park Funeral Home’s main office in Gainesville, Merck has worked in the funeral business since he was 14 years old. Even before that, as a child in New Holland, he and friend Bradley Elliott were upset at another boy killing a bird with his air rifle. They recovered the bird’s body, slipped it into a matchbox, dug a hole and buried it. Merck played the part of a minister at the “funeral,” Elliott the funeral director. 

In their careers they reversed roles; Elliott became a minister.

On another childhood occasion, Merck, at her request, buried a friend’s doll she had just received at Christmas and presided over the “funeral.” Her father found out, the doll was exhumed, cleaned up and the friend still has that doll today.

Merck was accustomed to funerals, growing up with his preacher father, the Rev. Roy L. Merck. He admired Hubert Vickers, who operated Vickers Funeral Home on Broad Street, now Jesse Jewell Parkway. Vickers asked him if he’d like to help, and he paid him 50 cents a day or $3.50 for Saturdays and Sundays.

He worked at Vickers — and even lived in the funeral home some — then Little-Davenport Funeral Home, where he also lived and raised three children with his wife, the former Pat Wilbanks. They have five children and nine grandchildren, none of whom has chosen the funeral business as their career.

A coroner determines the cause of suspicious or unusual deaths. He signs death certificates if they aren’t otherwise signed by a doctor. He works with Hall County medical examiner Gerald Gowitt, who conducts autopsies when necessary.

Merck doesn’t get much sleep. “My phone rings every night,” he says. A real vacation is a rarity.

The coroner’s office has been even busier lately, mainly because of fentanyl drug overdoses, and some COVID-19 cases. Merck probably will handle 300 cases this year, up from an average of about 200 a year.

“Fentanyl is killing us,” he said, “children not understanding what they’re getting.” Numerous teenagers are victims, Merck says. Adults up to age 50 are also dying because of fentanyl-laced drugs.

Merck is proud that the coroner’s office contracts with Angel Hands, a company that takes vehicle wreck victims, for instance, instead of keeping other emergency personnel, such as firefighters, on the scene away from their more urgent duties.

He also praises LifeLink, a program that harvests organs for transplant candidates from bodies of donors. Merck has seen lives saved because of it. He also recalls how an autopsy discovered a hereditary cause of death; surviving children were informed and treated to prevent the disease.

Merck, 83, doesn’t plan to retire any time soon, even after 69 years in the funeral business, 31 of which he spent at Memorial Park since the time the funeral home was first built. 

As for coroner, he plans to run one more time to see the county provide a morgue for bodies pending investigation, instead of funeral homes keeping them in coolers.

What if he had lost that flip of the coin? 

“I wouldn’t have run. I couldn’t run against my buddy,” he said.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times whose column appears Sundays. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA. 30501; phone, 770-532-2326.