Friend on the Fringes

We all know people who touch our lives peripherally. We encounter them on the fringes of our experience. Perhaps they are the spouse or child of someone we know well, thus care for more deeply. Merrill Rose lived on the fringes of my experience. But her mother, Betty Lou Rose, and her stepfather, Mike Ellis, lived large in my life as a reporter and later as a journalism educator. Merrill died two days ago. She was 64.

Her mother entered my life when I became editor of Flair, The Miami Herald’s feature section in its Broward County edition. Betty Lou’s competence and warm personality elevated her to the top tier of respected public relations professionals in South Florida. Whenever she approached me with a client’s story, I knew that it offered solid news value and reader interest. As we collaborated on many such features, our professional relationship grew into friendship.

Mike Ellis lit up the town when he showed up to manage Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse direct from an extended period of running the respected Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania. Both Bucks County and Parker are respected as excellent regional houses for quality professional theater and historically have served as stages for shows on their way to Broadway. The roster of their casts is studded by the names by well-known Broadway and Hollywood actors.

A former Broadway producer, Mike could entertain anyone in a heartbeat, and he also played a mean jazz piano. On one occasion, when malfunctioning stage lights at Parker delayed a show’s opening, Mike strode onto the stage apron, dressed head to toe in a lemon yellow outfit ,and regaled the audience with a 10-minute standup comedy routine.

After Mike’s wife Michael died, (yes, that was her real name), he and Betty Lou began dating, married and moved to Chapel Hill, where my bride Betsy and I joyfully reunited with this remarkable couple.

Merrill, armed with her mom’s good genes and a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, started work as a consumer reporter and assistant editor at the Washington Journalism Review but soon followed her mother’s steps into public relations. She served 18 years with the Porter Novelli firm, rising through the ranks to become the firm’s executive vice president. Merrill went on to a stellar career, earning numerous top awards, was named A “Public Relations All Star” by PR magazine, and was inducted into the North Carolina Media and Journalism Hall of Fame.

Our paths crossed briefly when she was a kid in Fort Lauderdale, a new graduate at UNC, then a respected and honored professional at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. I can’t claim a close friendship, but I feel humbly honored to have lived on the fringes of her remarkable life journey.

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