Bill Merkle, a retired High Desert State Prison Warden, donned a cap and gown to graduate Dominican University on May 16.

Bill Merkle, a retired High Desert State Prison Warden, donned a cap and gown to graduate Dominican University on May 16. Courtesy photo.

CDCR retiree fulfills commitment 36 years after postponing education

Story and current photos courtesy David Albee,
Dominican University of California

At the age of 82 – 36 years after postponing completion of his Dominican University of California education to pursue a prison job – Bill Merkle finally received his diploma.

Merkle, a retired Warden from High Desert State Prison, completed his final six units this semester and walked with cap and gown at commencement ceremonies on May 16. It marked the end of an academic journey which began in 1975 when he first enrolled in Dominican’s criminal justice program. He had been working as a captain at San Quentin State Prison, originally hired in 1972.

This 1991 portrait of Bill Merkle was taken when he was the warden at California Correctional Center. CDCR archive photo.

This 1991 portrait of Bill Merkle was taken when he was the warden at California Correctional Center. CDCR archive photo.

Yet, in 1979, his quest was interrupted when he accepted the associate warden position at California Correctional Center in Susanville.

With three children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, he was motivated to finish his schooling and earn his college degree.

“I’ve asked myself `Why am I doing this?’ several times. I’m not going back to work. There are not going to be any further promotions,” said Merkle, who still lives in Susanville with his wife, Lois. The couple were married in 1973.

“The crux of it was – college was something I jumped into,” he said. “I started something and I wanted to finish it. And I committed to it.”

That commitment began in 1954 after he served in the U.S. Army. He realized he needed a college degree, but also knew he needed to work to put himself through college.

Merkle was originally hired at the Correctional Training Facility at Soledad. During his off hours, he earned his AA degree at Hartnell College.

However, when a captain’s position opened in San Quentin, he yearned to earn a Bachelors degree. He was inspired to take criminal justice classes at Dominican in the evening and even arranged for his psychology professor and classmates to meet inmates inside San Quentin for a panel discussion in a “Physical Appearance” course.

Merkle was registered for his final six units at Dominican in 1979 when his boss called one day and ordered him to go to the California Correctional Center (CCC) within 48 hours. After being promoted from associate warden to deputy warden, he met with Dan McCarthy, the Director of the state prison system, to interview for the warden’s position at CCC in 1987. He asked Merkle why he hadn’t finished his schooling at Dominican.

“I am going to get that degree. I don’t know when but I’m going to get it,” he told McCarthy. “I made a commitment.”

Months later, then-Gov. George Deukmejian appointed Merkle as warden in CCC, where he settled and raised his family.

He was later named the first warden of High Desert State Prison, which activated in August 1995.

His family – especially his grandchildren – and McCarthy’s death two years ago motivated him to keep his word.

“Commitments are important to me. Loyalty is important to me,” said Merkle, who retired from High Desert State Prison in 1996. “I felt I made that commitment. That’s always been a part of it.”

Bill Merkle receives his diploma from Dominican President Mary Marcy. Courtesy photo.

Bill Merkle receives his diploma from Dominican President Mary Marcy. Courtesy photo.

He reached out to Dominican and discovered “everybody was super cooperative.” Dominican no longer offered a criminal justice program, but Marianne Stickel, Assistant Vice President for Academic Services and Registrar, and Dr. Chase Clow, chair of the Humanities Division in the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, worked together to combine Merkle’s former major with Dominican’s current Humanities and Cultural Studies major. They were able to apply many of the liberal arts courses he took previously to the current major to earn an Interdisciplinary BA.

“Clearly, at this stage in his life, long after retirement and with a very successful 40-year-or-so career behind him, this is not about getting a job. It is about education for education’s sake, which is always a dream for those of us in the Humanities (field),” Dr. Clow said. “It’s been such a pleasure to work with him these past two semesters. Bill is amazing – full of dedication, persistence, and a positive attitude. He has worked so hard. He had to produce senior level academic writing with proper citations after more than 35 years of being out of school. On top of that, he had to learn new software and online platforms, including how to navigate our library’s extensive digital collection. I am so proud of him and so honored to have (shared) in his educational journey.”

The graduation ceremony was attended by his wife and family members, including some of his 12 grandchildren.

“I always pushed education with the grand kids. Maybe this will make my point with them that college is important,” he said. “I went through a 40-year career in corrections, and the people that had the college educations … were the ones who were promoted.”

While he is retired and having a BA isn’t going to get him any promotions, he said it gives him peace of mind of a job well done.

“I’ve never wavered. I’ve never said, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m going to bail out,'” he said. “I’m going to feel a sense of pride that I stuck it out. It’s a sense of pride and a sense of commitment.”

Did you know?

Bill Merkle was named Susanville’s Citizen of the Year in 1995. “Mayor James Jesky cites Merkle’s long-term commitment to supporting city projects through the use of prison community service crews and vocational shops, along with his personal involvement in community activities,” Corrections News reported in March 1995.