Petaluma woman, among county's oldest residents, dies at 106
Published: Friday, October 12, 2012 at 12:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 12, 2012 at 12:17 p.m.
Over her 106 years, Stena Merrill accumulated an endless well of stories to draw from.
She once met early film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. In her youth, she played piano at the theater when silent movies played. She saw the arrival of motor vehicles, computers, cellphones and more.
On Dec. 7, 1941, on her 36th birthday, she sat by the radio in her Idaho home listening to reports on the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Most of all, she was proud she witnessed the election of the first black president of the United States.
Merrill died Oct. 3 of respiratory failure at Our House Residential Care Home in Petaluma, where she'd lived for the past five years. Services will be in Idaho.
Even into her final weeks, Merrill remained independent, said Diana Gruhl, a friend and elder activity therapist who met her at Our House. She impressed those around her by continuing to use her walker to get to meals.
Merrill was one of 14 Sonoma County residents between 105 and 110 years of age, Gruhl said.
She was born in Fillmore, Utah, the state's first territorial capital, to parents who'd emigrated from England and Denmark. Both parents died when she was a baby, and she and her two sisters were raised by their grandparents.
“I remember when the movies had no talking,” she used to tell friends. “I played piano by ear and got to see all the movies for free.”
A highlight of her young life, Gruhl said, was meeting Valentino when he was performing a show at the great Salt Air Pavilion near Salt Lake City. “He was short but good looking,” Merrill remembered.
She also loved ballroom dancing as a young lady, especially the ragtime two-step, and looked up to dance pioneers Irene and Vernon Castle, Gruhl said.
She remembers playing bridge and golf and making hats out of linen with cherries on the top.
In the 1920s, Merrill moved to Pocatello, Idaho, to take care of her aunt's children. There she met her first husband, Von Robbins, whom she liked instantly. The couple had three children, Boyd, Arlene and Charles. After Robbins passed away, she married Rufus Merrill, with whom she shared many happy years.
About five years ago, Merrill moved to Petaluma to be closer to her son and his family.
In addition to her son, Charles of Petaluma, Merrill is survived by three grandsons and four great-grandchildren.
Mary King, administrator at Our House, said Merrill loved to talk about playing golf and the numerous trips she and her husband took to watch Pac-10 college basketball throughout the West.
Merrill was a happy, content person, King said, who never complained.
“She always used to say, ‘I can't believe all the changes I've been through. I'm happy to have been here to witness all of that,'” King said. “But the one that really stood out was that we got a black president.”
Last year on her 106th birthday, Merrill received a signed photo of President Obama and a letter from him and First Lady Michelle Obama.
On that day, Merrill told Gruhl that the secret to her longevity was having a supportive family, a great attitude, good friends and participating in activities into her senior years.
Being a vegetarian and enjoying the occasional glass of wine helped, too, she told King.
Merrill will be buried in her beloved Pocatello, Idaho.
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