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(Middletown, N.J. Independent Feb. 20, 1991)

By Mark Rondeau

Louis Edward Merkel had no luck. His mother dropped him on his head when he was two, and as a result his body didn’t develop properly, although his mind was sound. Decades later, after a botched operation on his clubbed toes, Merkel found himself stranded in the Eaton Park Nursing Home in Eatontown, far from his native Manhattan.

Indigent, with no family to speak of, the small old man with dark glasses lived in a wheelchair in seven different Monmouth County nursing homes from 1967 until his death in 1986. Merkel’s homes included Navesink Pavilion in Red Bank and Emery Manor and Queen of Carmel in Matawan. He lies buried in a pauper’s grave at Shoreland Memorial Park in Hazlet.

“In spite of all this, Louis was always helping the other patients,” said the Rev. Bill Schneider, who as a young associate priest at St. Dorothea’s Roman Catholic Church in Eatontown met Merkel at Eaton Park in 1967.

Schneider recalled that Merkel would regularly fix stacks of meal trays for other patients, equipping each with knife, fork, and spoon. He would do this for three meals a day, spending two or three hours daily on the task.

Merkel also cheered his fellow patients whenever he could. Schneider recalled the time Merkel’s new roommate wouldn’t speak to his family, leaving them in tears, because of his anger at being placed in the home. However, Merkel soon had the man on the phone to his family, apologizing and explaining, an effort which won Merkel the family’s lasting gratitude.

“When you have a lot of problems, help somebody else,” Schneider summed up Merkel’s philosophy. “You’ll find they’re either manageable or they’ve disappeared — they’re not so bad after all.”

Merkel’s life wasn’t all suffering and service, however. One day Schneider accompanied him on a ride in a small plane from what was then the Red Bank Airport.

In 1971 the two friends visited Rome and managed to meet with Pope Paul VI, although they had no tickets for an audience.

“I will say a special prayer for you,” the pope said to Merkel, who cried and said nothing, Schneider recalled.

Merkel often pestered his friend to bring children to visit whatever nursing home he was in. In fact, he had a dream that people would help others in whatever way they could, especially the elderly and the poor.

Inspired by Merkel’s dream, Schneider started Project Service to Other People (STOP) several years ago. This effort encourages people of all faiths to visit the sick and elderly in nursing homes and mental hospitals.

“It’s amazing what inner strength (a visit) gives them,” he said. “What these people need to learn is that somebody cares.”

Schneider, now a chaplain at Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital, suggested that people start by visiting anyone in their family who might be lonely and depressed. People might also call the activities director of a local nursing home to find residents who don’t get visitors, he added. For more information on Project STOP, call Schneider at 462-1896 or 946--8100 ext 2210.

“He was just a basic good person,” Schneider said of his friend. “He had next to nothing going for him and still came out batting one thousand.”

(This was written as an “OFF BEAT” opinion column the paper’s reporters wrote on a rotating basis).

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