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The Mountains Are Calling: Cal Says Farewell to Lair of the Bear Extraordinaire Bob Merritt

May 29, 2015
by Martin Snapp
Bob Merritt in the mountains

The Lair of the Golden Bear lost one of its best friends, Moraga lost one of its founding fathers, the law lost an eminent scholar and practitioner, many worthy causes lost one of their biggest benefactors, a remarkable family lost its beloved patriarch, and Top Dog lost its best customer on February 22, when Bob Merritt died at age 74 from complications following heart surgery. There will be a celebration of his life at Cal Shakes in Orinda on Sunday, May 31.

As a member of the Cal Alumni Association’s board of directors, Merritt helped create the Lair’s master plan, a $17 million project, in 2002–03. Then he was tapped by CAA Executive Director Tuck Coop to implement that plan as project director.

“Bob had a lot of construction experience and longtime connections with the forest service that were invaluable,” says Coop. “But even more valuable was his attitude. He wasn’t one of those people who are looking to find fault. He was always supportive, always positive, always looking for ways to help. And I will love him forever for it.”

He was also a legend among campers at the CAA-operated Lair as the guy who made gin fizzes every Sunday morning of 8th week for the past 40 years for everyone at Camp Blue, plus anyone from Camp Gold or Camp Oski who happened to wander in.

“He always had two or three blenders going and a CD player blaring music by the Cal Marching Band,” recalls his daughter Kati Radziwon. “He made them from scratch according to his secret recipe, which is now in the custody of my brother-in-law, Chris Hunter.”

Curiously, it was not love at first sight when he first beheld the Lair in 1966.

Bob Merritt in the mountains

“Bob was a serious backpacker, and he was used to roughing it out in the woods,” says his wife, Robin. “He took one look at the tents and the dining hall and the tennis courts and said, ‘This isn’t camping!’ But two years later we took our daughter Kim, who was only eight months old, on a camping trip. We were in one tent with a toddler crying all night and crawling all over the place, and all of a sudden the Lair looked a lot better.”

But he never abandoned his first love, backpacking. He spent much of every summer hiking with friends in the Sierras, where they’d munch freeze-dried meals, quote John Muir, and sing John Denver songs along the trail.

He established two unbreakable family rituals. First, every child or grandchild was entitled to a one-on-one backpacking trip with him as soon as he or she reached the age of 6—the first of many hikes they would take together over the years. Shortly before he died, he left a letter for Robin, to be opened in the event of his death, reminding her to make sure that every grandchild yet to turn 6 got his or her backpacking trip when the time came, even if he wouldn’t be around to share it with them.

Second, anyone who wanted to marry one of his kids had to go backpacking with him before he’d grant his seal of approval. “My fiancé Chris made sure he passed by including all the ingredients for making a gin fizz in his backpack,” says his daughter Kim Hunter. “He even wrapped dry ice around an egg. My dad was so impressed, he gave his permission on the spot.”

But that was just one side of this multifaceted man. In 1974 he spearheaded the successful effort to incorporate the City of Moraga, then went on to serve four terms on the Moraga school board. “It was a big decision for a small town to break away from the county government,” says Maridel Moulton, who worked with him on the incorporation campaign and later on the school board. “Bob worked like a dog; and then, when we won, he was happy to step into the shadows. Others had to be in front, but his ego didn’t need that. He wasn’t in it for the accolades. His pleasure came from empowering others.”

Robert Edward Merritt Jr. was born January 31, 1941. After getting sick from eating an entire stick of butter as a child, he realized that the only way he could enjoy the junk food he loved was to pursue the strenuous life.

His love of the outdoors led him to enroll at Humboldt State, transferring to Sacramento State two years later. After college he entered UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School, where he formed his lifetime addiction to the bratwursts at Top Dog and began dating Robin Kragen, daughter of the iconic law professor Adrian Kragen.

“Bob never took my father’s class, but my father proctored his Real Estate final,” she recalls. “They moved the time up an hour but forgot to tell him, so when he got there the exam had already started. Bob asked for a time extension, but he was afraid the other students would think he was cheating if he kept writing after they finished. So he asked to take it in another room. My father’s response was ‘What does he think this is? Kindergarten? Tell him to sit down and take the final!’ Later, when we started dating, Bob was a bit nervous about encountering my dad again. But Dad didn’t remember him.”

He graduated from Boalt in June 1966 and married Robin a month later. For their honeymoon they worked for the Peace Corps in Peru for a year, then returned to California, built their home in Moraga, and had four children: Kim, Kevin, Kristin and Kati, all of whom became longtime staffers at the Lair.

“He was bap­tized as an Epis­co­pali­an, Baptist and Pres­by­teri­an at dif­fer­ent times in his youth; but really, his true re­li­gion was nature. And the moun­tains were his church.”

Meanwhile, he was building a reputation as one of the best real estate lawyers in California, first at the Steinhart Law Firm and later at Brigham McCutchen. He served on the executive committee of the state Bar, becoming the leading authority on the extraordinarily complicated Subdivision Map Act. “Bob was the brains behind the Act,” says attorney Julie Baird, who served with him on the committee “He wrote one of the most often referred-to treatises about it. He had a breadth of knowledge that was truly astounding. He also ran an annual training session for lawyers who were new to real estate, called Boot Camp—three days at a hotel eating, drinking, and breathing real estate law. It was a great, great weekend, and people got a lot out of it.”

Later, he recruited Baird to be chief counsel for the Save the Redwoods League, one of the many worthy causes that benefited greatly from his generosity in time, labor and money, including Stanislaus Wilderness Volunteers, East Bay Parks Search and Rescue Patrol, Senior Legal Services, Lighthouse Charter School and an organization especially dear to his heart, Vida Verde, which provides free overnight environmental experiences for kids who otherwise wouldn’t get the opportunity.

But of all his enthusiasms, nothing matched his devotion to his family.

“He came to all my swim meets,” says Kim. “I don’t think he could have cared less about my times; he just loved to watch me swim. When I took up ice skating, he decided to take skating lessons, too, to have another thing to share with me. When I was at Cal, he’d take a day off now and then and sit in on my classes with me, just for the fun of it. Then we’d go to Top Dog. Years later, when my daughter Haley was interested in piano, he would drive her to her lessons, right up until he went into the hospital for the final time. He even started taking piano lessons himself so they could play duets. I never had to ask her to practice; that was her thing with my dad, their special thing they did together.”

“My dad was very open to whatever we wanted to be and supported everything we did,” says Kati. “He taught us to have passion for what we do and have tolerance for others and what they choose to do. Because of that, we embrace our choices and embrace each other for their choices.”

He baked all the family birthday cakes, took his kids and grandkids on early-morning breakfast dates, read them bedtime stories from his Wizard of Oz collection, coached their sports teams, read “The Night Before Christmas” aloud to the whole family every Holiday season, and told lots of bad jokes. Nobody can remember him saying anything bad about anything, except golf and five-star hotels.

“He was also a very spiritual person, ” says Kati. “He was baptized as an Episcopalian, Baptist and Presbyterian at different times in his youth; but really, his true religion was nature. And the mountains were his church.”

Sunday’s Bob Merritt celebration in Orinda will run from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., although they’ll start serving gin fizzes at 9:30. Dress code: Cal gear, ranger uniform, hiking outfit or casual attire. Music will be provided by the Cal Marching Band, and the event will be catered by Top Dog.

“Everyone should have a friend like Bob Merritt.” —Tuck Coop

“Once in a very long while, you come across that rare person who is a shining star, a great soul. He was one of those.” —Julie Baird

“You don’t realize when you’re young how good you have it. Once we got older, we realized.” —Kim Merritt Hunter

“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” —John Muir

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