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"The man who took down 'The Machine'"
Rachael Crawley
Dateline Alabama
December 6, 2005

Dec. 6| John Merrill is the Director of Community Relations and Community Education for the Tuscaloosa County School System. He has a background in politics that began with his election as student body president at The University of Alabama. Merrill is known for his time spent at the University because he is one of the few that has been elected in an executive position as an independent, that is, not affiliated with a Greek organization.

Merrill was the first person in the history of the student government to be both vice president and president. He was also the first person to be married while in office. He was married his junior year while vice president, now celebrating 25 years with his wife, Cindy.

Merrill's legacy is that he is the sixth and last person to have ever beaten "the machine" at The University of Alabama, which is the Greek's system of political power, by being elected in two executive positions as an independent.

"I won because of [Mike Shula], and because of Cornelius Bennett, and Van Tiffin and Derrick Thomas, and Mark Gottfried, and all of those student athletes that people knew when we were in school, because we were all friends," Merrill said.

Merrill said he played basketball with these well-known athletes at the student recreational center.

Kathleen Cramer, associate vice president for student affairs at The University of Alabama, knew Merrill when he was in office at the university. Cramer said that Merrill is very humble about his achievements while he was here. She said he is also one of the best politicians she knows.

"He is memorable the first time you meet him. He is a very organized leader. He's not afraid of bold visions," Cramer said.

Merrill's political background roots back to his childhood that was spent in Heflin. He was the president of the student body in his high school, graduating in 1982.

He continued his education at The University of Alabama to pursue a career in politics. He became interested in politics because his dad is a politician.

"When I came to Alabama, I came with the idea that I would get a degree in political science and history and go to law school, and go back home and run for office," Merrill said.

The next year Merrill ran for president and was elected, once again as an independent.

"My opinion about why it hadn't been done since that time is because I dedicated myself to making that happen. If I decide I want to do something, if it's within my power to do it, it's going to happen," Merrill said.

Merrill was not in a fraternity while in school, which is important when being involved in politics at the university.

"The Fall of sophomore year I got appointed to the student senate, then the fall of my junior year I ran for vice president and got elected. I was independent."

After Merrill graduated in 1990 for The University of Alabama with a major in political science and a minor in history, he worked with the Tuscaloosa Chamber of Commerce and Randall Publishing. He began his job at the Tuscaloosa County School Systems a few years later, where he has been working for the past 11 years.

"My job as director of community relations is to find positive ways to promote the school system and to answer any inquires about the school system that are positive or negative in a timely and professional manner, and as director of community education, to provide an affordable after school or before school childcare service that is affordable safe and secure for the children we serve in our system," Merrill said.

A reason for being so involved in the Tuscaloosa County School System, said Merrill, is because his job gives him a chance to be involved in the lives of his two children, Brooks, a tenth grader at Hillcrest High School, and Allie Grace, a seventh grader at Hillcrest Middle School.

Catherine Walker is a student at The University of Alabama and interns for Merrill. She is majoring in public relations and is getting a double minor in business and education. She has worked in the office since September of 2004.

Walker said she helps Merrill deal with the media most of the time concerning with the school system.

"The news comes in here to talk to [Merrill], he also talks to the newspapers a lot of the time," Walker said.

Merrill now deals with the media on matters concerning the Tuscaloosa School System, unlike his past dealings with the media that concentrated on his presidential victory as an independent.

Merrill said that to this day, people will come up to him and ask him about when he was elected president.

"When Mike Shula introduced me to Sparky Woods in the fall of 2003, he told him, 'Coach this is John Merrill. He was student body president when I was in school. He beat the machine,'" Merrill said.

Since the time Merrill held the presidential office of the SGA as an independent, no other has come close to beating out "the machine."

Rachael Crawley is a Dateline Alabama staff reporter and photographer.