On any given day, you can find Judith Merrill turning on her iPad and using the popular app FaceTime to share stories with one of her great-grandchildren. She wouldn’t say she’s a “high tech” person, but anyone who has spent any time with Judith can see that she has always kept up with the world around her with a lively curiosity.
In 1920, Judith was welcomed into the world by parents who filled their lives with music. Unsurprisingly, little Judith did the same, learning from her mother—a violinist, violist, and pianist—as well as from her father, who played woodwinds. Both were on the faculty of the Northern Conservatory of Music in Bangor, Maine, and offered their daughter some extraordinary opportunities to make music. By the time she was 13 years old Judith was playing violin with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, the oldest community orchestra in America.
Music has been a mainstay of Judith’s life, and she played her violin with orchestras and small ensembles for many decades in Maine, Massachusetts, and Florida. She also taught violin, at one time managing a schedule of fifty students. Stories of her long performing career alone would fill a book, but music was not the only exciting current that swept her along on adventures.
When Judith was only 15 and singing in the All Souls Congregational Church girls’ choir, she looked out and there he was, the new youth minister, a first-year seminary student named John Whitney MacNeil. Yes, that name might sound familiar to you. MacNeil was the visionary Congregational church minister responsible for founding both Plymouth Harbor and New College in Sarasota. Imagine this bold young man in his mid-twenties waiting almost five years to wed the beautiful and talented young Judith, almost nine years his junior.
After her childhood, Judith calls her 39-year marriage to the outgoing clergyman the second of her three lives, so distinct is the division in her mind. She and John married in 1940 and had their first son, Peter, while living in Auburn, Maine. After five happy years, they moved on to Eliot Union Church in Lowell, Maine, where their second son, Paul, was born, and then on to Framingham, Maine, where John joined Grace Congregationalist Church as its minister until 1957.
During those years in and around Boston, Judith was kept busy with many performing opportunities. She played her violin with small chamber ensembles, as well as the Reading Civic Symphony and Boston Women’s Symphony.
When John and Judith, with Peter and Paul, moved next to Sarasota, Judith soon put her violin back to work, this time with the Florida West Coast Symphony. While the boys adjusted to new schools and John developed his vision for the First Congregational United Church of Christ, Judith received an invitation from conductor Alexander Bloch and concertmaster David Cohen to serve as principal second violin during the 1957-58 orchestra season. It was to be the longest association with a single orchestra of her lifetime.
Just as they were all enjoying their new lives in Florida, their older son, Peter, was diagnosed with cancer. Two years later he passed away.
Reminiscing about a family vacation taken when Peter was seven, Judith says she marveled at seeing the national parks out west through the eyes of her son. Not long after Peter’s death, the family took a second cross-country road trip with Paul, who was a teenager by then, but this time visited retirement communities from the Midwest.
John was already envisioning the solution to a need he saw for a life-affirming retirement community devoid of long halls and parked wheelchairs. He even imagined smaller groupings (colonies) as an innovative solution. He brought the best ideas back to the volunteer leaders of the First Congregational UCC to consider as they raised funds, constructed, and finally opened the doors of Plymouth Harbor in 1966. “I just watched him do it,” says Judith, who claims she played no role in her husband’s illustrious achievements.
They were not to enjoy these times for much longer. John had a serious heart attack in November of 1965, retired from his church leadership in 1966, and remained frail until his death 13 years later. Judith was strong and healthy throughout this time and continued teaching and playing her violin.
Along with music, there had been another constant in Judith’s life since her childhood. For several generations, her family had spent every summer at Onawa Lake in the Great North Woods, beside the Appalachian Trail in northern Maine. After John’s death, Judith returned to the lake and surrounded by mountains, family, and friends, she enjoyed nature and the many memories associated with those past summers.
Another family that summered on the lake introduced her to a quiet civil engineer from the University of Maine who had also lost his spouse in the previous year. Bob Merrill and Judith MacNeil met in July and knew their fate early on. By October 1980 they were married and honeymooning in Great Britain. Bob was a woodsman who loved to hike and travel. They split their time between Maine and New Hampshire for the summers and Sarasota in the winter for the next two or three decades and enjoyed their combined families, now burgeoning with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
a sandpiper walks
Of course, her family is very important to Judith, and she is quick to point out that her son, Paul, is an award-winning poet specializing in haikus and editor of the print and web haiku monthly, The Heron’s Nest. Judith delights, too, in Paul’s two beautiful twin granddaughters.
In 2007, Judith recalls, life seemed to circle back on itself. “I convinced Bob that it was time to consider Plymouth Harbor as our home. He was skeptical at first, but was won over by the Wood Shop, which he loved.” For five years they enjoyed Plymouth Harbor together before Bob began to face health issues. When he died in February 2012, Judith sorrowfully closed another chapter of her life.
Judith’s North Garden residence is filled with art, photos, and memorabilia from a life richly lived. She doesn’t teach or play her violin anymore, but she does keep up with the news of Sarasota’s lively arts scene. And now, with her iPad in hand and following the details of her extended family’s activities, Judith is still enjoying a most extraordinary life.