When he attends luncheons, Dick Merren carries two miniature bottles of Tabasco hot sauce in his shirt pocket.
The local labor leader dribbles the fiery liquid liberally on the sometimes bland food to recreate the flavors of his native Honduras.
But there’s little else the 82-year-old misses about his childhood, when his parents struggled under an oppressive dictatorship in the 1930s and ’40s. The country’s economy was crippled by the Great Depression and the sudden loss of overseas demand for its main export: bananas.
When I was growing up, my mom and dad were in survival mode, Merren said, adding that on some days, they ate only popcorn for two of three meals.
Memories of gnawing hunger, widespread unemployment and political suppression in his Central American homeland propelled Merren to seek a job in a unionized factory when he joined the U.S. workforce in 1950. And his deep appreciation for organized labor led him to propose in 1981 that Fort Wayne needed an annual Labor Day picnic – an event that draws more than 5,000 people each year.
Everyone is welcome to attend: Active union members, retirees and the general public. Merren, who has called the bingo numbers every year since the first picnic in 1982, sees the annual event as a way to bring people together.
It’s the heritage of labor, he said of the day that falls on the first Monday of each September. Too many people treat it as a holiday and an excuse to spend three days at their lake cottage.
Merren’s commitment to labor is unquestioned. He concurrently holds the chairmanships of five labor organizations – all volunteer positions.
His commitment to the community is a close second; he has raised a ton of money for local non-profits, one of his lieutenants said.
Randy Schmidt, vice chairman of the Community Action Program Council for Allen, Adams and Wells counties, has worked alongside the octogenarian for 20 years.
Dick Merren, he said, is the quintessential community activist and volunteer.
Living in fear
Merren’s 1948 move to the United States was arranged by his father, who feared his 18-year-old son’s life was in danger after one of the teen’s friends involved in political opposition was almost killed by machine-gun fire.
The younger Merren was named after Richard the Lionheart, a British king and great military leader who ruled in the 1100s. But that legacy of courage wasn’t enough to protect a young man who ran with a crowd discreetly agitating for revolution.
The elder Merren first planned to send his oldest son to a technical college in Milwaukee. Then, at the urging of a Fort Wayne friend who offered to watch over the young man, the father sent his son to study mechanical electrical engineering at Indiana Technical College, now known as Indiana Tech.
But before he could graduate, life got in the way. Merren married, took a job at General Electric and received a draft notice from the Army. He had a choice: Report for duty or return to Honduras.
During his two-year tour, which was during the Korean War, the only time he left the U.S. was during training exercises in international waters.
Merren, who became a naturalized citizen after the war, returned to the factory.
I hated that I didn’t graduate, because it broke my mom and dad’s hearts, he said.
But Merren’s parents might have been comforted by the fact that of their five children who lived to adulthood, only the oldest didn’t finish college. Two sons and two daughters graduated from U.S. colleges, going on to become one architect, one airline executive and two teachers.
A worker’s hero
Merren’s tenure at GE was brief. When he got a chance to work in International Harvester Co.’s machine shop, he jumped at it.
At the height of its local workforce, Harvester employed about 10,500 making oversize trucks – the ones that pull tractor-trailer rigs. But it wasn’t numbers that drew Merren. It was the opportunity to join the United Auto Workers.
Merren cites the late Walter Reuther, former president of the UAW, as his role model.
Reuther fought for better pay, benefits and working conditions for all workers. But beyond that, he supported civil rights and social programs to help the poor.
Merren read about the UAW president’s beliefs and wanted to be part of his organization. He stayed with Harvester until he retired in 1986, three years after the company closed its main Fort Wayne assembly plant.
Today, Merren holds multiple elected union positions:
Chairman of the Community Action Program Council for Allen, Adams and Wells counties, a position he’s held for 30 years
Chairman of the 3rd Area CAP Council, a position he’s held for 30 years
Chairman of UAW Local 57 Retirees
Chairman of the UAW 3rd Area Retiree Chapter
Chairman of UAW Region 3 Retirees, covering Indiana
In March, the UAW realigned its geographical divisions, merging some regions. Officials are still figuring out who’s in charge of some of the combined areas, Schmidt said.
Schmidt, a General Motors retiree, doesn’t remember whether Merren has ever been opposed for office. But he scoffed at the idea that Merren has been elected as a default because nobody else wanted the jobs.
Not hardly, Schmidt said. It’s not like there aren’t people willing to step up to the plate should he decide to give something up.
The CAP Council focuses on both political and community issues, Schmidt said. Every month, the organization writes checks to local non-profits, distributing member dues and voluntary contributions.
Although Merren keeps daily office hours, he doesn’t take home a paycheck for his work. It’s all voluntary, except for job-related expenses.
But he doesn’t mind.
I owe a lot to the UAW, he said. I’ve traveled all over because of the UAW. I’ve met all kinds of interesting people because of the UAW.
Doing the job(s)
Merren’s travels have included six Democratic national conventions, but he cautions that people shouldn’t read too much into that.
Despite what a lot of people believe, union members aren’t in the back pocket of one political party, he said.
We’re one-sided on issues, not one-sided on politics, he said.
But national conventions are only once every four years. Merren’s travel was weekly at its height. He made regular jaunts to cities in his region, including Indianapolis, Evansville and Louisville, Ky.
Despite his widespread duties, Merren knows his priorities.
My best goal is to serve the retirees of the Harvester, he said.
The retirees need an outlet, something to do, he said. The UAW’s retiree chapters organize monthly meetings with speakers, political updates and health-related information.
Merren considers the retirees his extended family, and that’s obvious to those who know him.
Those he treats as brothers and sisters – more than just the union sense of brothers and sisters, said Tom Lewandowski, president of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
Merren’s personality makes those strong bonds possible, Lewandowski said.
He’s just fun to talk to. He has this way of talking that he just feels like he’s your bud, Lewandowski said. He likes people, and it shows.
Merren said reaching out wasn’t always so easy for him.
If you saw me growing up, I was bashful, he said, adding that might have been because his mother wouldn’t let him cut his hair until he was 8 years old and she became pregnant with her second child.
I think she wanted a girl, he said, smiling sheepishly.
Lewandowski wasn’t surprised to learn Merren was shy as a child.
Some of the best representatives realize they have to speak for others, not for themselves, he said.
As a representative, Merren can appear imposing. For years, he stood 6 feet, 3 1/2 inches tall. It was only at a recent doctor’s visit that he measured 6-foot-2, an aging-related change he’s not happy about.
Lewandowski described Merren as a gentle giant.
Some guys use that to be intimidating. He never did, Lewandowski said. He has a striking presence, but he never had an intimidating demeanor. He always did come across as a congenial guy – welcoming.
But Merren’s warm personality hasn’t tempered his drive to be a leader. When he saw that the local Labor Day parade was struggling to get people to ride on the floats, he suggested the picnic.
As part of his proposal to the Central Labor Council, Merren said that if at least 1,000 people didn’t attend, they’d scrap the picnic and come up with another plan.
That was a bold commitment, said Lewandowski, who wasn’t leading the labor organization at that time.
Labor officials hired off-duty sheriff’s deputies to count the crowd as people entered that first year. At one point, a counter approached Merren and asked whether they could stop. Merren gave his permission because they’d already reached 3,500.
Over the years, as many as 9,000 have attended the picnic, Merren said. One year – when it rained – only about 4,500 showed up.
The Central Labor Council is the picnic’s official sponsor, but Merren has been the picnic’s foundation for the past 30 years, Lewandowski said.
He’s been the rock, Lewandowski said. You start with what he’s doing and you add everything else.
Merren’s commitment to the cause is as strong today as ever. He recently called Lewandowski to share his fear that The Journal Gazette was writing an article focused too much on him.
He doesn’t want anything to be about him. It’s about the labor movement, the average workers, Lewandowski said.
That tells you all you need to know.