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Smile Maker

Dr. John Merrilees retires after 44 years
Smile Maker
Smile Maker
Long-time dental assistant Debbie Lytle assists Dr. John Merrilees as he cares for a patient during the last week his practice was open. Photo by Stephanie Taylor Ferriell
By Stephanie Taylor Ferriell, Senior Staff Writer, [email protected]

You don’t often find them like Dr. John Merrilees. Not in this day and age at least. The beloved English dentist dimmed the smiles of his patients when he announced his retirement earlier this year. His last day of seeing patients was Feb. 24. He was honored with a reception at the English Senior Center on March 7.

Smile Maker
Merrilees discusses a patient’s chart with Kathy Blair, who spent her entire career with the English dentist. Blair had worked in the office 38 years. Merrilees retired last month. Photo by Stephanie Taylor Ferriell

Merrilees is, in the very best sense of the term, old school.

“He was no-nonsense. He didn’t do things that didn’t need done,” said Ron Line, a Marengo resident who began seeing Merrilees back in 1979, when he was just 17 years old. “He didn’t do work just to get paid. If he didn’t think you needed it, he didn’t do it.”

Joe Baily and his wife, Elaine, became patients in 1987, after moving to Crawford County from Floyd County.

“I think he was more concerned about what he could do for the community,” said Joe Baily. “There’s a whole lot of other places he could’ve went and made a lot more money, for sure.”

Elaine Baily worked for  Merrilees for a few years in the early ’90s. In such a small office — three people, including the dentist — it was absolutely imperative that everyone liked each other and got along. That was never a problem, she said.

“I really liked him and the job. I sat across from him all day; we always had something to talk about. … It was a really nice atmosphere.”

Merrilees had to be good to work for; Kathy Blair was a brand-new dental assistant when she started in the office in August 1981. Thirty-eight years later, her voice caught as she talked about her boss and the close relationships the staff developed with patients during the past nearly four decades.

“I loved all our patients,” Blair, who became office manager, said, noting she sifted through more than 5,000 charts in the weeks leading up to the closure. “We probably have grandchildren of the children who started here.”

Blair said many Crawford County residents trusted Merrilees to care for their teeth, but he drew clientele from the region as well. “A lot of patients came from a long ways; Corydon, New Albany, Jasper.” At least one drove from Indianapolis.

Blair said patients valued Merrilees’ commitment to punctuality. “He always kept on time. He didn’t make people wait because he was considerate of the patients’ time as well.”

Debbie Lytle has been  Merrilees’ dental assistant for the past 15 years.

“We’ve almost become a family,” she said.

When the position opened, Blair and Merrilees discussed who they wanted to work with, thinking of patients who might be interested. When they called Lytle, she recalled saying, “I don’t know the first thing about a tooth!” They assured her she would be trained, and she was.

“They put so much in my head,” she said.

Lytle is a self-described talker, joking that it got her into trouble. “I love the people,” she said.

An Alabama native, due to the Tennessee Valley Authority, Merrilees is, at heart, a Crawford County son.

“My dad is from Crawford County, but he was working on the dam for the Guntersville Lake for the TVA,” he explained.

There, he met and married an Alabama girl, and John soon came along. The family moved to Crawford County when John was 3.

They lived at Beechwood, a small community off S.R. 62 West. Merrilees started school at the Jericho School House. It had two classrooms. Grades 1 through 4 were in one, with the fifth through eighth graders in the other.

“There were 40 students altogether,” he recalled. “I had 12 in my class when I graduated.”

Merrilees went on to the old Leavenworth High School, graduating in 1960. He recalls an education focused on the basics: “arithmetic, geography, history, things like that.” He did not take part in any sports or other activities.

“My dad was a farmer, so I had to go home and feed the hogs and cows,” he said.

At that point in time, he had no career aspirations.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do after high school,” Merrilees admits.

He worked as a carpenter’s helper in Indianapolis for a couple of years then moved on to the Allison Division of GM, making transmissions. In 1966, he joined the Army, serving stateside through 1968.

“I decided sometime in that two years that I didn’t want to build tank transmissions, so I got out and started going back to school,” he said.

He started taking classes at Purdue Extension, located then off 38th Street in Indianapolis, thinking he might want to be a veterinarian. Deciding that wasn’t what he wanted, Merrilees started taking courses at IU Extension, which would later become IUPUI.

“It was just one hall then,” he said.

Realizing he “didn’t want the responsibility of the medical profession — “I didn’t think I wanted to make decisions that, if I messed up, you die” — he settled on dental school.

After graduating in 1976, he came back home. At the time he opened his office, located in old English, Merrilees was the only dentist in Crawford County. He remembers English being “a bustling place,” especially when he was growing up.

“It was the county seat. On Saturday, anybody who was anybody came to English to do their trading,” he said. “It sounds archaic, but there were no Walmarts back then.”

Merrilees was active in the community. He was a member of the English Civic Club and served on the English Town Council. The council had a major headache in that era, one that no amount of aspirin could touch.

“If you look at an aerial map, there’s several thousand acres that all drain into feeder streams that end up at the confluence of Little Blue River, where English sat,” he said. “It flooded an untold number of times. ‘79 was the worst we ever had. It was devastating to pretty much everybody.”

Merrilees learned of a town in Wisconsin which FEMA moved after epic flooding. He contacted the congressman who represented Crawford County at that time.

“He said, ‘What can I do to help?’ I said, ‘Stop the rain or move us out of this hole.’ ”

The Congressman agreed to see what could be done.

“The next thing we knew, FEMA was here, IDEM,” he said. The decision was made to move English up the hill, out of the flood zone.

“It was one of the smarter things the government did,” in Merrilees’ estimation.

Merrilees’ office moved — literally building and all — along with the town. The town relocation process took time. JayC Food Store and the hardware store were among the first to open on the hill; most others followed in 1994.

Following the ’79 flood, Merrilees’ office was rebuilt due to the damage. “So, basically we had a new building.” He decided to have it hauled from its location at the intersection of state roads 62 and 37, up the hill.

He hired Butka Movers from Oswell to handle the task. “They said, ‘Put a glass of water on your desk,’ ” Merrilees recalled. “‘If it spills, you don’t owe a penny.’ ”

The office was successfully moved, glass of unspilled water and all. “They did an incredible job.”

The office was relocated to Indiana Avenue, where most of the town’s essential services (town hall, library, senior center, bank, etc.) were built. After being closed a couple of months for the process, which included adding a basement,  Merrilees’ office reopened.

In addition to the change of scenery, he’s also experienced industry changes. One of the biggest has been the development of composite resin fillings to replace silver, which Merrilees said was first used after World War I.

He said a significant number of patients today have dental insurance, something that was unheard of four decades ago. “Unless they worked at Ford or International Harvester, you didn’t know what (dental insurance) was. Patients that have it, understandably, have more options, better quality of dental care.”

Merrilees said patients have asked him over and over why he decided to retire now. “It was a difficult decision,” he admitted. “I’m 77 years old; I’ve been at it 44 years. It’s time to take a break.”

For now, the office sets empty.

Merrilees is hopeful that will change.

“I would like to find another dentist,” he said, noting there is only one other in the county, Dr. John Click, whose office is in Milltown. “We really need a dentist in the west end of the county.”

While he won’t be spending his days perfecting smiles, Merrilees most likely won’t be rocking on his front porch either.

“I love to hunt and fish, always have,” he said. “I have a house and five acres plus a rental property.”

He’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife of 56 years, Sonia, and their daughters, Lisa and Dana, who both live in Indianapolis. He’s also an active member at Hillview Christian Church.

“It’s been good,” he said of his career. “I’ve made a lot of new friends, a lot of new patients. I’ve enjoyed it.”

Ron Line said Merrilees leaves big shoes to fill.

“He always took good care of me,” he said, sharing a story about breaking a tooth off while at work.

Merrilees worked him in immediately. Line noted Merrilees’ rates did not match inflation. “He kept his prices low. … He is a good guy. Guys like him are hard to come by.”

The Bailys agree, saying the dentist’s retirement will have a big impact.

“As far as the county goes, I just wonder what we’re going to do without him,” said Joe Baily. “Everybody is going to have to find a new dentist and has hard choices to make.”

Mary Metz of English was a patient for 28 years.  Merrilees kept the smiles of many members of her family bright and shining. “My husband, son, grandson, my daughter and her husband all went to him.” She described the entire staff as “excellent. My grandson just adored all of them.”

Merrilees, Metz said, “meant a lot to a lot of people. I would suspect he’s done a lot of things and not charged what he could have. He would never say so, but he’s the kind of guy that would do things like that.”

Many people turned out March 7 to thank Merrilees for his care over the years and to wish him Godspeed as he enters the next phase of his life. Metz was among them.

“I said, ‘Dr. John, I don’t know what we’re going to do without you. I don’t know. There’s not many like you.’ ”

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