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Merle Biggs

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Merle Biggs Obituary
Merle Bonita Irish Biggs
October 13, 1916 – September 22, 2011

Merle Biggs was born in Cicero, Illinois to Willis Luther and Stella Bertha (Putnam) Irish, the oldest of four children. She grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, ultimately graduating from high school in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Merle grew up in the Great Depression and was formed, in part, by this experience. Her family lived in the basement of their house so they could rent the nicer first and second floor space to tenants. All of the kids worked whatever jobs could be found to help support the family. As a result, Merle practiced frugality throughout her life; for instance, she used pencils until they were so short she could not hold onto them anymore. She mended and re-mended clothing so it could be worn by a string of kids as “hand me downs.” Her kids remember endlessly licking grocery stamps to place in books which would eventually be “cashed in” for a free toaster or other modern gadget. Her refrigerator often contained small bowls with a bite or two of leftovers that could not be wasted.

Despite not having a lot of extras, Merle’s family found a way for all of the children to get an education and learn to play an instrument. The children learned to play the piano at home but when Merle, at age 12, wanted to learn another instrument, her family could not afford one. Fortunately, the local high school had an extra cello and Merle’s love affair with the cello began. Many years later she would say wistfully, “I am so glad they only had a cello for me.” For Merle, the cello was a connection to something transcendent and eternal. She started playing with the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Golden Symphony) in 1956 and continued to play with them until 2003. She tried to keep playing the cello at home but stopped when she broke her wrist in 2006. Many times she said how grateful she was that she could play with the orchestra, even though she felt she was “not very good.” In 2000, her cello story came full circle when she learned that East High School had 5 students wanting to play the cello but had only 4 available. She had been given an old cello in poor condition a few years before so she paid to have it repaired, bought a new case, put her extra bow with it, and donated it to the school. At Merle’s request, Popper’s Requiem (a piece played by 3 cellists) will be played at her service.

Merle postponed attending Cornell College in Iowa for a year until her savings combined with music scholarships were sufficient. She earned degrees in English and music from Cornell. After graduation, she taught school in Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and Rhode Island. Although Merle planned to be an “independent woman” all her life, she met and fell in love with John Elmer Biggs in Delta, Colorado, after he asked to carry her cello for her. They married in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on December 23, 1941. Merle later taught school in Ely, Nevada while John served in the Navy in Providence, Rhode Island during World War II. Since public schools would not hire a married woman at that time, she pretended to be single although it chafed her sense of honesty. At war’s end, she and John reunited and moved to Denver where they started their family. Daughter Marilyn Carol was born in 1945; followed by Elmer John (1948); Margaret (Marty) Karen (1950); Judith (Jude) Anne (1952); Janice (Jann) Allene (1956); Patrick (Pat) John (1968) and Richard (Rick) John (1969). Although each child was very different, she loved them all.

Bringing Elmer into the world profoundly changed the course of Merle’s life. Shortly after Elmer was born, doctors told Merle and John that Elmer had Down Syndrome and urged them to put him into an institution. Despite pressure to do so, they decided to keep and raise Elmer, thereby setting an example for future generations. John’s mother, Pearl, helped them make the decision, saying, “He’s not going to get love from the outside world. It’s got to come from the family.” Merle studied about Down Syndrome and put her teaching skills to work, helping Elmer to learn to read at a third grade level and achieve recognition as one of the highest functioning Down Syndrome persons in the country at the time. Elmer brought great joy into the family and lived with Merle until he passed away in July 2011. When he died, Merle said with a tear in her eye, “I’m so glad he died first. I wanted to see it through with him. I kept my promise.” Ten weeks later, Merle passed away.

In 1955, someone asked Merle to take in a little girl who had been blinded and paralyzed in a car wreck, until the child’s grandmother could take over. Thereafter, Merle and John took in 1 to 4 foster kids at a time, often kids who were difficult to place. Many were born with disabilities or had been abused physically and emotionally. Merle felt her home was a “last chance” for the foster children to see what a family was like. Many stayed in touch over the years. One, upon graduation from high school, sent a note to Merle thanking her for “showing me a different way to live.” Eventually, Merle and John helped raise 30 foster kids.

After Merle’s mother died of cancer in 1955, Merle devoted herself to alternative cancer treatments. She was founder and president of the Denver Ivy Cancer League which raised funds for a cancer treatment that had helped her mother, Krebiozon, developed by Dr. Andrew C. Ivy in Chicago. She also researched and supported other cancer treatments that would bolster the immune system. Much of her fund raising was through rummage sales, so the front and back porches of the house usually were stacked high with boxes of second hand clothes and household goods, ready for the next sale. When she died, her kids found a box in her dresser from her last yard sale, with price stickers, scissors, tape, and sale signs, as if she was anticipating yet another sale.

Much to her kids chagrin, she researched and used natural remedies for many afflictions, which earned her the label of “health food nut” years before such practices became popular. Now those same kids use those same “health food nut” remedies on their own kids and grandkids (probably to their kids’ chagrin).

Merle was active in the Park Hill Methodist Church, having joined in 1946. She was a member of the Esther Circle Group, gathered shipments for Overseas Relief, sewed quilts for the needy, and assisted grade school children with homework through the church’s “Whiz Kids” tutoring program.

Merle never seemed to slow down, even in her later years. In her late 70’s, after John passed away in 1991, just 5 months short of having been married 50years, Merle went through 66 hours of training to become a facilitator at workshops in prisons and schools, helping people learn how to deal with anger and other issues in non-violent ways. In addition, she and several friends, all in their 70’s and 80’s, played small chamber concerts at nursing homes and senior day care centers. They would load into an old station wagon with Merle’s young granddaughter, Sarah, saying, “We’re gonna go play for the old folks; they’d appreciate the music.”

In 2002, Merle received the Minoru Yasui Community Volunteer Award for her many contributions, such as playing with the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra for 45 years; helping to raise 30 foster children in addition to her 7 children; cofounding the Denver Ivy Cancer League; and helping with church activities since 1946. In 2003, she was selected to represent Colorado for the Jefferson Award, a national service award started by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In 2004 she received the William Funk Building Local Community Award for her service with the New Foundations Nonviolence Center. In typical modest fashion, when she was given these awards, she would say people were “making too much fuss over me” and that her activities “kept me off the street and out of trouble” -- a nod to her love of driving and “road trips” near and far. Although her community activities forced her to overcome extreme shyness, her accolades never gave her a big head.

Merle’s parents and sibling twins Everett Roland Irish and Evelyn Crete Hardy preceded her in death. Her husband John passed away in July 1991 and her son Elmer passed away in July 2011. She is survived by her very dear brother, Donald Paul Irish of Minneapolis; children Marilyn Carol Biggs Adkins (and Marilyn’s son Chris Adkins and Chris’ wife Pat and children Sean, Marissa and Troy; and Marilyn’s daughter Shawneen Morrison and Shawneen’s husband, Lou and children Sammy and Benjamin); Margaret (Marty) Karen Biggs; Judith (Jude) Anne Biggs (and husband Dennis DuBe’); Janice (Jann) Allene Biggs-McNaughton (and daughter Sarah); Patrick (Pat) John Biggs (and his children Theira Biggs Fortier and Matthew Biggs); Richard (Rick) John Biggs (and his children Racquel Biggs, Richard Martinez, Albert Martinez, Laura Armendariz, and Deshawn Biggs); and many loving nieces, nephews, and great nieces and nephews.

The family requests that any donations be made to the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra, P.O. Box 546, Golden, CO 80402-0546.

On Saturday, November 5, 2011, a joint service for Merle and her beloved son Elmer will be held at Park Hill Methodist Church, 5209 Montview Boulevard, Denver, CO. Pre-service music starts at 10:30 AM and the service starts at 11AM. Pastor John Thompson, presiding.

Published in DenverPost.com from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2, 2011
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