By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor
Officials and organizations are discussing how best to honor the memory of former mayor and township administrator Michael Merdinger, who died Monday at the age of 67.
Municipal flags flew at half-staff this week, and other acts are being planned. A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, at South Branch Reformed Church.
For 40 years, Mr. Merdinger was acting at the center of township life, particularly his Flagtown village.
He would “eat, sleep and breathe Flagtown,” said company Fire Chief David Foelsch.
Mr. Merdinger served as township administrator for 19 months before retiring in the summer of 2012.
Mr. Merdinger was a Rotary Club member for 36 years, and the Flagtown fire company for nearly 40. He has served on many township boards, including four years on the Township Committee, serving as mayor in 1984. His service on the library board lasted more than 20 years, as did his tenure on the municipal utilities authority.
“I haven’t just seen the township change,” he said in 2012. “I’ve been part of that change for 35 years.”
He lived in a historic house in Flagtown, built in 1901 by Clement C. Clawson, the inventor of the slot machine and snow cone machine, he said in the 2012 interview.
The municipal building sits on land he helped negotiate to secure when the several hundred-home Rohill development was built in the Beekman Lane area. He had a hand in conceptualizing, planning and arranging for the financing of the municipal building.
In 1977, the township had zero preserved acres, he said, but by 2012 the number had grown to 10,700, he said.
He was selected as township administrator in late December 2010 after a private engineering career highlighted by 23 years of working around the world on environmental projects in such places as Kuwait and South Africa and Africa. Photos of African animals in the wild and him dressed in Arab garb brought personality to his township office.
In his final days at work in the summer of 2012 and at Planning Board meetings in recent months, he could be seen wearing a cabana shirt and shorts, implicitly communicating he was enjoying his days at his Shore house.
“I never saw him as happy as when he was with his grandkids,” said Mayor Frank DelCore.
At Planning Board meetings, Mr. Merdinger often sat next to Mr. DelCore, who marveled at Mr. Merdinger’s ability to hold engineers and attorneys to account for promises past and future.
His background in engineering and handling of environmental cleanup and other projects around the world gave him the ability to absorb and question planning applicants’ testimony in detail.
At the same time, Mr. Merdinger was quick with a smile or a story. He had a mischievous sense of humor.
As administrator, he occasionally handed out faux business cards advertising his connections to used cars, endangered species and moonshine, among other things, and listed among his credentials “elections assured, governments run, insurgents squashed, bureaucracies overthrown, economies revitalized, celebrations organized, funding arranged, buttons pushed, titles bestowed and refugees settled.”
Township Committeeman Douglas Tomson said Mr. Merdinger and former mayor Peter Biondi were the first two people to get him involved in township politics.
“Mike always took the time to talk to you. He had no problem explaining the history of the township. He was a great sounding board because he had the institutional knowledge of the town.”
Mr. Tomson said Mr. Merdinger “dedicated his entire life to making Hillsborough a better place.”
Appropriately, the repast following the Jan. 30 service will be held at the Flagtown firehouse, where Mr. Merdinger spent hours of service and annually produced pots of chili on Super Bowl Sunday.
“He served in many positions, and he was our department historian,” said Chief Foelsch.
“Every month at our meetings, he would give a report telling us who was chief in 1939, or when we got a new truck,” said Mr. Foelsch. “I know the department always liked hearing about the past.”
Mr. Merdinger’s fire service was largely in many administrative roles; Mr. Foelsch didn’t know if Mr. Merdinger had ever been a line officer.
“He would be the person who I would go to ask that question,” Mr. Foelsch said.
Township Administrator Anthony Ferrera remembered Mr. Merdinger as perennially positive, upbeat, smiling and cheerful.
When he succeeded Mr. Merdinger in the township job, it was easy for Mr. Ferrera to separate his meeting notes from his predecessor’s. Mr. Merdinger used a yellow legal pad, and Mr. Ferrera preferred white paper.
Mr. Merdinger will be remembered in the Ferrera family for teaching the children how to chuck clams, Mr. Ferrera said.
One major reason Mr. Merdinger said he retired was an on-the-job back injury caused when he twisted his body up the final step onto the municipal building roof to see the progress of a repair and HVAC installation project.
That led to a pulled muscle, which he favored, he said. Eventually he hurt a lower spinal disc, requiring surgery to relieve the pressure, he said.
In pretests, doctors noticed an irregular heartbeat, he said, which he said he was told could increase his chances for having a stroke.
Surgery barely slowed him. He was in the office the day after, he said, and moved around with the aid of a rolling walker.
Mr. Merdinger came on board at the township helm after then-Administrator Kevin Davis had resigned to take a state political staff job. Mr. Merdinger was a perfect fit, township leaders said, able to jump right into township business, especially environmental remediation projects.
His volunteer service on a number of boards also gave him knowledge of the history and progress of issues. And it probably didn’t hurt that he was a past Republican Party chairman.
By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor