Petaluma woman, among county's oldest residents, dies at 106

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.

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