Life Story / Obituary
O.J. Merrell "Jay" May 31, 1945 — May 5, 2020
O.J. was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma but grew up in Colorado. While still in high school, he discovered rock climbing and acted as a rock and mountain climbing guide in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. O.J. received his B.A. degree from Southern Colorado State College and his M.A. from Western State College in Speech Communication and Theatre. His first teaching job took him to Kirksville, Missouri at Northeast Missouri State College, now Truman State University. He taught there for over a decade, designing sets and directing numerous dramatic and musical productions. While there, he took a leave to get his M.F.A. in directing from the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago. He left Kirksville shortly thereafter to accept a job as head of the theatre department at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois. There he created a season subscription program as well as a mime troupe. The theatre department became the largest department on campus with many students pursuing careers in professional theatre.
After a divorce and remarriage, life in a small town became challenging so O.J. and his new wife Chris moved to Waukesha, WI in 1982 where he took a position teaching theatre and designing sets at Carroll College. After a year at Carroll and 15 years of teaching, O.J. decided it was time for a change. He told Chris he wanted to “run away to the Zoo” where he could have a regular job without nights and weekends being taken up with rehearsals and set construction and the pressure of tight, finite deadlines. So, in 1983 O.J. began as a seasonal park attendant at the Milwaukee County Zoo. But the allure of a low-pressure job was short-lived and soon O.J. was not just a park attendant but was running sound for the exotic bird show at the zoo. From there he moved to driving zoo mobiles and rewriting the script for the tour drivers. His theatre background talents led him from there to working in Group Sales and zoo rentals. That evolved into him becoming Special Events and Exhibits Coordinator where his theatre background held him in good stead. Instead of doing theatre productions for an audience of hundreds, his productions were now viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.
He was instrumental in the original Destination Dinosaur at the zoo, designing the gates and layout of the exhibit as well as ones that followed. Whether it was footprints on the pavement or making the ground rumble and shake, it was all about pre-approach and setting the stage for the audience to get the best experience possible. The construction of the Special Exhibits Building was like O.J. getting his very own theatre which he would fill with exhibits ranging from robotic animals to bears and bats.
His life was just as busy and hectic as before but he seemed to thrive on the pressure and deadlines.
Later in life while vacationing in Colorado, the climbing bug bit again and he taught Chris how to rappel and rock climb and built himself one the largest home climbing walls in the city. 14ers became his next challenge and he and Chris would end up climbing 11 of them before the 911 attack made travelling with climbing equipment problematic.
After 25 years at the zoo, O.J. was ready for new challenges which took the form of slowing down for retirement. His focus became woodworking — planters for the garden came in the form of a buckboard, a stagecoach, and milk and ice wagons. Not just your standard window boxes. He also started building guitars, ukuleles and dulcimers as well as furniture. A kit received as a Christmas gift turned into a passion for creating stained glass pieces — this combined with furniture-making resulted in floor lamps and table lamps as well as a one of a kind mailbox and a trellis in the back yard. Slowing down just wasn’t in his nature and after winning one of the mayors landscaping awards, O.J. and Chris were invited to become part of the first Riverwest Secret Garden Tour. After the first year proved so successful, O.J. was asked to take over the task of organizing the tour in the future and has done so for the past 12 years. It is now one of the mainstay events in Riverwest. It has been cancelled for this year due to the virus. He and Chris were also rewarded for their work in their yard and garden in 2015 when they received the Grand Champion Beautification Award from Blumels Garden Center.
O.J. and Chris were making plans to celebrate their 38th anniversary when O.J. passed away unexpectedly. He is survived by his wife and soul-mate, Chris; their furry kids, Pepper and Toni; his sons, Eric and Travis; grandson, Jager; granddaughter, Joplyn; and great-granddaughter, La’ie; and brother, Art. He was preceded in death by his younger brother, Jim.
In lieu of flowers, plant a fruit tree, grow some vegetables, plant some flowers or make a donation to the zoo to support your favorite animal. Give the ones dear to you a hug and tell them you love them every day.
A private burial at Good Hope Cemetery will be held and we will celebrate O.J.'s life at a later date. Maybe at next year's Riverwest Garden Tour, to which he dedicated so much of his time.
Jay looked at it this way. Life is an adventure. Enjoy the journey. Challenge yourself and most of all have fun! Life is too short to not be happy.