By Kevin Werner, News Staff
Former Ward 7 alderman Henry Merling, one of Hamilton’s most influential local politicians, passed away peacefully Oct. 17 in hospital. He was in his 81st year.
Merling, who served on the old city of Hamilton council and regional council for 20 years beginning in 1974, helped to oversee the development of the mountain as it exploded in population over the years during his term on council.
“He was a kind man,” said Ward 7 councillor Scott Duvall. “I was lucky to have known him as a friend and as a mentor.”
Merling assisted Duvall when he ran for council in 2006.
“I would knock on doors with Henry, and the people would start talking to him, saying they needed Henry back,” said Duvall. “I wondered if I should even be running. I told him you should be running.”
Merling, who worked at Stelco, where he met Duvall, began his political career in 1974, becoming the Ward 7 central mountain alderman. He was successfully re-elected over the next two decades every two years until 1982, when council terms were extended to three years. That didn’t stop Merling who continued to be re-elected until 1997 when he was defeated by Terry Anderson and Bill Kelly.
In 2003 Merling ran for the amalgamated city council for Ward 7, but finished second to Bill Kelly with 21 per cent of the vote, ending his political career.
But he never left politics. He provided extensive support to Duvall during his successful run as a mountain councillor in 2006.
“He was my mentor,” said Duvall. “Whenever I needed to find out some information about the ward, or city hall, I would go to Henry. He was a walking encyclopedia.”
As an alderman, he earned a reputation as a dogged politician who worked hard on behalf of his constituents, standing up to developers, and for his straight-forward, direct talk. For example, he demanded improved sewage treatment facilities to protect residents because of flooding issues. He also was known to get into dust ups with colleagues, including one instance when he confronted his Ward 7 seatmate John Gallagher at city hall.
Ward 4 councillor Sam Merulla first met Merling in 1981 during an all-candidates debate. Merulla, who was 14 at the time, was assisting Dominic Agostino as school board trustee.
“He was bigger than life,” said Merulla. “When he shook your hand, you felt it from your toes to your hair.”
The outspoken councillor said Merling was one ofHamilton’s “most powerful” aldermen at city hall. His legacy extends across the mountain, including the construction of Lime Ridge Mall, and the other developments across the mountain.
“Some people may question his tactics, but he always got the job done,” said Merulla. “He always looked after his residents. It’s a sad day for the city.”
Ward 6 councillor Tom Jackson, who served with Merling for eight years on Hamilton council, said in his heyday Merling was “one of the most powerful, influential members of council that ever graced city hall. I was honoured to have known him.”
Jackson said as a rookie councillor in 1989 he learned quickly to listen to the wily veteran as he provided needed advice.
“He was one of the members you gravitated towards,” saidJackson. “He knew the inner workings of the city. His knowledge about city hall and how to get things done was invaluable.”
But it was during a court hearing involving Hamilton Spectator reporter Ken Peters that kept Merling in the spotlight over the years. The reporter received information about health and safety issues involving a nursing home in 1994. The business took the reporter and paper to court over the next 15 years, demanding they reveal the source of the information. Peters refused. Eventually, Merling stepped forward to say he was the source of the information.
Even though he never ran for political office again, Merling became involved as a planning consultant and was often seen at city hall talking to officials and mingling with councillors.
Duvall said Merling never stopped helping people, including himself. Often Merling would drive over to Duvall’s house, and stay, following the up and coming councillor around. Or he would just sit back in the garage and having a cigarette.
“Every time I went somewhere, there would be Henry,” said Duvall. “He was so well respected. He loved his family (his wife, and daughter). He would always be there to help. He was a very caring, kind person.”
Duvall said Merling’s son, who passed away a few years ago, affected him greatly.
As Merling was in hospital dealing with some medical issues, Duvall said he still had that strong handshake that signaled his well-known presence.
“He wouldn’t let go,” said Duvall. “I still remember those large hands of his with their tight grip. We will miss him.”
A celebration of Merling’s live is expected to be held at Carmen’s Convention and Banquet Hall, a time and day to be announced later.
An announcement was made at the Oct. 18 general issues committee meeting about Merling’s passing. Mayor Bob Bratina ordered the flag at city hall lowered to half-staff in Merling’s honour.