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Even were he not 6 feet, 4 inches tall, George Merrill would have stood as a giant among high school librarians.

While working at Montgomery High, he was key to the Santa Rosa district’s adoption of a daily period of sustained silent reading for all grade levels.

He persuaded Montgomery’s English teachers to stop having every student read the same book and instead allow students to break into study groups, select a piece of literature and as a team research the author and discuss the book.

“He was a tireless advocate for library services, for educating students, for creating lifelong learners,” said friend and former colleague John Koetzner of Healdsburg.

“He was a Renaissance man in the modern age who had an incredible and indelible impact on the lives of students and faculty.”

Merrill, whose many professional honors included Santa Rosa’s Educator of the Year and the highest award of the state library-media educators’ group, died March 13. He was 84.

He oversaw the library and literacy initiatives at Montgomery from 1973 until his retirement in 1998. After retiring, he volunteered for years cataloging books for the entire district.

His appetite for knowledge and discovery made him an ardent traveler, reader, patron of opera and theater — and cook.

Friend Gail Ellestad of Santa Rosa recalled that from the first time Merrill saw Julia Child on television, he couldn’t get enough of her and her kitchen creations.

“He was absolutely enthralled,” Ellestad said. “He watched her every week. He cooked all her recipes.”

Merrill also was a Siamese cat lover, a gardener and a small-scale grape grower. He grew pinot noir grapes near his longtime family home near the Russian River in west Sonoma County and sold them to wineries.

George Patrick Merrill Jr. was born in Glendale in Southern California and spent his first 12 years there. He came each summer to a Russian River Valley farm to be with relatives of his mother, second-generation Sonoma County native Mary Louise Stroven.

Merrill sadly left California as an adolescent after his father announced that his work with the Stanley Tool Co. was taking them to New Britain, Connecticut.

After high school, Merrill earned a degree in English from Yale, then served a stint with the Army.

Afterward, he returned to California and enrolled at UC Berkeley, where in 1959, he became certified to teach secondary school. He began his teaching career on the English staff at San Lorenzo High School.

A short time later, he returned to Cal and earned a master’s degree in library science. With his hiring at the library at Montgomery High, he fulfilled a desire to come back to Sonoma County and to the family farm outside of Forestville.

John Koetzner joined the Montgomery staff in 1980 as an English teacher and became deeply impressed with all that Merrill did to collaborate with teachers across the campus and to draw students into the library.

“He was a very innovative librarian,” Koetzner said. Witnessing Merrill give “spellbinding book talks” and make the school library a dynamic place for students and teachers inspired Koetzner to become a school librarian, too.

Merrill’s retirement from Montgomery in 1998 didn’t slow him down. He continued on with his volunteering, travels, cooking, operas in San Francisco — same seats for 20 years — and many other sources of fascination.

“He was a gift to Sonoma County,” Koetzner said. “The world is a better place for the time he was in people’s lives.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

Editor’s Note: This version of the obituary corrects the spelling of Gail Ellestad’s name.

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