by LIZ MARCHI

Polson, Montana was not a place I expected to ever live. Life happens and you find yourself doing your best to bloom where you are planted. I moved to Polson in 2005 and joined the local Rotary Club. Rotary, in my working years, has always been a place to connect with business people who share a passion for community and service.

Polson Rotary Club, at the time I joined, could be characterized as the old boys club – still could. But beneath first impressions are deep waters and life experiences that belie the collegial outer appearances and good old boy banter.

I always noticed Merle Parise, even though I didn’t know him. He was always smiling, doing every job that had to be done quietly: hanging up the banners, keeping the nametags organized, handing out songbooks, taking tickets, making sure the flags were out, the speakers were working, cleaning up after the meetings. Recently when buying my Rotary lottery ticket I asked Merle how old he was. He answered, “I will be 86 next month.” I was shocked; he is in great shape, never complains about aches or pains, moves around like a 60-year-old, volunteers all over town, is well informed about current events and seems totally engaged in living. His was a story I wanted to know more about.

Merle PariseMerle Parise was born the first child to parents who were both deaf in Broderick, Calif., 1928. His father had learned only broken English in an Italian household in Colorado before losing his hearing to scarlet fever at 12. Merle’s mother was born deaf but had attended a school for the deaf in Berkeley, Calif., and spoke sign language. Merle is the oldest of five children, all still living.  When he entered kindergarten, his language skills were poor and he was held back. He did all he could to help his brother who wound up in the same grade. They would remain in the same class until seventh grade when there were two sections.

Merle’s father supported the family doing janitorial work at factories and later casinos from which he brought home leftover food. Life was lean.

World War II started as Merle began 10th grade. He had a low draft number and felt he had few choices in life. He chose to go into a trade (electrician) education program that paid a salary while he could earn his high school diploma. One of the ironies of where Merle is today is that one of his classmates, Jim Boyle, who chose engineering in that same class, also wound up in Polson and was a founder of the local food bank where Merle is both a captain and serves on the board and as finance director. Merle graduated from high school in 1945 and joined the Navy. He had a distinguished and groundbreaking career in the Navy over 29 years that took him all over the world. He followed that with a successful consulting career as a nuclear engineer. He will tell you that Northwest Montana is the best and final destination for this challenge-seeking, restless soul.

Merle was deployed to China in 1948 where his ship supplied U.S. missionaries up and down the coast. His was the last ship to leave Shanghai before Mao took control of the country. He was deployed to Korea and rendezvoused with the American fleet on Sept. 15, 1951.  Merle, always the first to seek new challenges, applied for the nuclear submarine program in 1959. He graduated from Nuclear Power School in Groton, Conn., and was sent to Idaho Falls to be project manager on the first nuclear hull built. If you ever go to Arco, Idaho, he was on the team that did the first nuclear electrification of an American city. At the time, there were only about 900 nuclear power engineers in the country. In 1960, he was assigned to the USS Skipjack, the first U.S. submarine that was built on the albacore hull model, as a fast attack submarine. Merle then had the opportunity to travel on to the Mediterranean where he and three others Catholic crewmembers had an audience with Pope John at this summer residence. They presented him the ship’s plack. Merle, who had a top-secret security clearance, could fill a novel about his experiences on the high seas of the world during the Cuban missile crisis, the opening of the Soviet Union and today’s modern world.

Merle doesn’t readily share these kinds of events.  His wife of 36 years, Doreen, has to prod him to talk about his incredible life stories.  She is clearly awed by her partner’s energy and enthusiasm for all he does.

I asked Merle, who has six children, two step-children, 14 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren, what he would tell them about his lessons learned. He says read and learn about everything you can. Second: stay involved, especially in your local community. Third: have fun. Merle clearly approaches every day with a sense of wonder, the desire to get it right and the passion to keep on learning.

We descended to the lower level of his home to see what is without doubt one of the most complex, large and fantastic miniature train models in the country. I had no idea that Merle is a nationally renowned train collector. So what does a nuclear engineer do in retirement? Should have known. I opened our interview with the question, “Where did you grow up?” He answered, “I haven’t grown up.” There in lies a great secret of an individual who has shouldered so much responsibility yet continues to live a life in full. Merle will be 86 on Jan. 2, 2014.

Liz is fascinated by the various approaches to aging – from denial, to plastic surgery,  to running marathons, to depression. Given our current demographics, Liz thinks that there is a lot to explore, celebrate and learn from those living and aging in the Flathead Valley. Contact her at Liz@frontierangels.com.