Unable to walk, he found his way into the hearts of an entire town

April 08, 1994|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writer

For 65 years, Lester "Democrat" Merson rolled through Savage -- first as a child in an "express" wagon pulled by a billy goat, later in a mule-drawn wagon, and finally in a 1936 Chevrolet designed for the disabled.

He was paralyzed from the waist down, the result of an attack of polio when he was 3 years old. Everyone in Savage knew him, helped him. They delivered his mail, drove him to the grocery store, cooked his dinner.

The lifelong Savage resident died of heart failure March 26. He was 74.

"I'll miss him," said Elnora Wheeler, who grew up with Mr. Merson. "Everybody loved Democrat."

They called him Democrat because he always voted for that party, said his brother, Linthicum Merson.

"You don't say, 'Lester.' You say, 'Democrat.' Nobody called him anything else," said Jan Arnold, who delivered mail in Savage for 18 years. "Several people missed his funeral because the obituary said, 'Lester Merson.' "

Ms. Arnold delivered Mr. Merson's mail, most often bills from the telephone or electric companies. Then she helped pay his bills by picking up money orders for him at the town post office.

That's the kind of service people said they loved to give Mr. Merson. It began soon after he was paralyzed from polio.

Savage resident Dudley Williams said his father bought Mr. Merson a wagon when he was 9 years old so he could get around town.

As Mr. Merson grew older, residents in the old mill town hitched a wagon to a mule for his transportation. But that didn't last too long.

They soon pitched in to buy him a used 1936 Chevrolet. Dudley Williams orchestrated the drive.

"We all tried to help him as much as we could," Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Merson wasn't always easy going, particularly when he was younger. "His parents pretty well tried to please him," said Laurence Whitehead Sr. "But he'd get mad as hell if you didn't attend to him right away."

Still, he never let his disability prevent him from staying active.

He learned mechanic skills and worked in a Riverdale plant, where airplane parts were made, and later worked on carburetors in a mechanic shop at Fort Meade.

But mostly he spent his spare time working on his own car so he could drive teen-agers or town residents to the store.

"I guess you could say he lived in his car," said Ms. Arnold, the mail carrier. "My daughter's car broke down and I paid him to take my kids to school for a month or two."

"If you had children, he would lend them the car," Ms. Wheeler said. "He was a good-hearted person." Kindness was met with kindness. Ms. Wheeler often cooked him a meal or a dessert.

"He really loved sweet stuff," she said. "I know he's really missed."

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