Last week, I attended the funeral of my true friend and mentor, Merle Fleming. She was a woman beyond her time. She taught me so many things.
Months ago, Jim said something to me about how "all my heroes were politicians." I can see where he thought that was true, I do talk a lot about how I admire some of them. But it also disturbed me and made me realize that I need to talk more about how I'm inspired and admire real people in my life who have made me who I am today.
Merle was raised dirt poor in rural Iowa and really never got over the feeling that her clothes and physical appearance somehow never were presentable enough as her classmates. She set out purposely in life...to purposely be a woman of substance and style. To change the status quo. To right wrongs in the world. And that is exactly what she did.
Her obit is pasted in below, but what it doesn't say is that Merle was a feminist, a humanist (which was a new and interesting concept to a Catholic girl like me) and just generally a person who lived her convictions. She will be sorely missed.
Merle Wilna Fleming, 80, of Iowa City and formerly of Des Moines, died Sunday, November 26, 2006, at University Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, of complications of Alzheimer’s and cancer.
Merle Wilna Fleming was born October 23, 1926 in Iowa City, Iowa, the third daughter of Samuel Thomas and Chelsea Eunice (Tadlock) Fleming. Raised on a farm near Frytown, Iowa, Merle graduated from Washington Twp. Center High School in 1943, the year her family returned to Iowa City. In 1948, she received her B.A. with a Certificate in Journalism from the University of Iowa, where she worked for the Daily Iowan newspaper. She also worked as the Iowa City correspondent for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the Davenport Democrat, and the United Press. In 1945, Merle served as the summer city reporter and sports editor of the Clinton Herald.
On October 2, 1947, Merle married Elliott D. Full, and together they raised four children in Iowa City. They later divorced in 1971. During the 1950s and 1960s, Merle served as a part-time reporter the radio station in which her husband was a partner, KXIC, largely covering school board meetings. Merle was active in politics and public service positions during these decades, serving as an officer of the Johnson County Democratic Central Committee, 1954-56; a board member of the Iowa City League of Women Voters, 1950-1954; and organizing the Johnson County Democratic Women’s Club in 1954. In 1958, Iowa Gov. Herschel Loveless appointed Merle to a Bipartisan Committee on Reapportionment, for which she worked as lobbyist in the 1959 General Assembly. By 1960, she was working for Loveless’ U.S. Senate campaign. In 1962, she served as the only woman on Gov. Harold D. Hughes’ campaign committee. In 1965, Gov. Hughes appointed her to the first Iowa Civil Rights Commission, which she chaired from 1966 to 1968. As she raised her children, Merle was also an active supporter and president of the Iowa City Swim Club, president of the Southeast Junior High PTA, and president of the Unitarian Women’s Alliance.
From 1970 to 1971, Merle worked as a hearing examiner for the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, hearing the first sex discrimination case to reach public hearing. She also established a private firm, Equal Opportunity Consultants Inc., in 1972, which assisted Iowa banks in complying with affirmative action regulations. In 1977, at 50, Merle returned to the University of Iowa to earn an M.A. in Public Administration and, in 1980, a J.D., graduating with distinction. From 1980 until 1989, she was an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Iowa, assigned to the Board of Regents and the Department of Public Instruction where, among other things, she wrote opinions upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court concerning uncertified Christian schools. In 1990, Merle was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame for her work in civil rights and education reform. In 1992, she ran for Iowa House District 68 from Des Moines. After leaving the AG’s office, Merle continued to work, first for the Ahlers, Cooney, Dorweiler, Haynie, Smith & Allbee law firm (until 1995), and then as a case-by-case hearing examiner for the Iowa Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services. She has served as chair of the Iowa Bar Association’s Women and Minorities Committee, board member and president of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, chair of the Des Moines Strategic Planning Commission, vice president of the Metro Des Moines Opera Guild, and parliamentarian for the Drake University Head Start Policy Council. Merle also sang the song of the poet, especially in the early 1970s, when hundreds of poems “poured” from her heart and intellect, unrestrained and unstoppable, a legacy intended for her grandchildren who might wish to know her better.
Merle is survived by one sister, Shirley Sieglaff, of Iowa City; two sons, Michael Full (Diane McDonald), and Jerome Full (Jan Nash), of Iowa City; one daughter, Anne Ulbright (Philip) of Bremerton, Washington; and one daughter-in-law, Helene Full of Reedsburg, Wisconsin. She is survived also by five grandchildren: Jennifer Winter of Omaha, Neb.; Jayson Full of Iowa City; Jonathan Full and Christopher Full of Reedsburg; Wisc.; and Benjamin Ulbright of Bremerton, Wash.; a step-grandson, Eric Thomae of Tucson, Ariz.; and three great-grandchildren. Preceding her in death were two sisters, Melva Wertz and Eunice Bright, a brother, Raymond. Her second son, Stephen D. Full, also preceded her in death.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Hospice of Iowa City, the Drake University Head Start Program, Des Moines, or the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines.