Lorenzo Merritt had a successful engineering career, having worked as a mechanical designer at an electronics company, an information systems manager at a petrochemical plant and a planning manager at a gas company.
Then, in his 40s, he took a left turn. He got into social work.
“I think it was a confluence of his own family history and the changing times,” Lisa Merritt, one of Lorenzo’s children, said of her father’s career shift in the 1970s. He wanted to give back to the community and help young people develop their potential, she said.
That decision spawned a four-decade second act that saw Merritt establish a community-action group in Nassau County; guide economic opportunity councils in Nassau and Suffolk counties; manage Head Start centers; and help lead an effort to move families out of “welfare motels” in Jericho, Syosset and other communities and into better housing. For the latter, he was named “social worker of the year” in 1973 by the National Association of Black Social Workers.
The former Westbury resident, who suffered from congestive heart failure, according to his daughter, died in Los Angeles on Sept. 25. He was 85.
Merritt was born in Harlem, though his parents moved to Portland, Oregon, when he was a teenager. In school, he competed as a cross-country runner and a Golden Gloves boxer. He returned to New York to enroll in City College. Though he didn’t graduate, he began working as a mechanic at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and then as a machinist at the General Instruments Co. in Hicksville before moving on to other jobs.
Though he wouldn’t make the career shift until later, Merritt’s participation in the 1963 March on Washington (where Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech) had a huge impact on him, his daughter said.
“He wanted to make a change in the world,” said Lisa Merritt, of Sarasota, Florida.
He enrolled at Adelphi University, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in 1971, a master’s in social work in 1972 and a doctorate of social welfare in 1977. He help create the North Shore Guidance Center in Westbury and served stints as executive director of the economic opportunity council in Nassau, then Suffolk. In 1973, he led a push to move poor families out of “welfare motels.”
“Any other place to live is better than this,” Merritt was quoted as saying in a Long Island Press story.
After a divorce, he moved to Los Angeles, but continued in the field, working as a family therapist and heading Project Heavy West, a youth services and gang outreach organization. Los Angeles Times articles in the 1980s cite the group and Merritt as trying to quell gang tensions.
“He kept that boxer’s attitude,” Lisa Merritt said. “He never left that. He was always fighting for something.”
He never lost his engineering bent either, always “tinkering,” she said. He built his own skis and fixed a telescope on the roof of his California house for stargazing.
Dan Dorado first encountered Merritt at Foothill Family Services in Pasadena, California, helping him through trying times, including the death of his father. Merritt’s compassion and understanding stood out.
“He told me, ‘Danny, when you feel like calling your dad, you can call me,’ ” Dorado said. Merritt later would serve as best man at Dorado’s 2009 wedding.
Merritt continued to work into his 80s. When Dorado asked him why, he said Merritt said, “Danny, I want to be relevant.”
In addition to his daughter, Merritt’s survivors include his wife, Juana Coleman-Merritt of Los Angeles; ex-wife Eleanor Merritt Darlington of Sarasota; daughter Lori Merritt, of Sarasota; son, Kofi Merritt, of Newport News, Virginia; siblings Michael Hodges, of Jacksonville, Florida; Michelle Hodges, of Manhattan; Delores (Butch) Kyle, of Queens; Judy Sullivan of New Jersey; and nine grandchildren.
Lorenzo Merritt will be honored at a memorial service at 1 p.m. on Nov. 4 at Thomasina’s Event Space in St. Albans, Queens.