Categories: Life & Arts
In photos: (Left) Brian Merriam stands next to Johanne Rene, a Haiti native who came from Miami to Schenectady in May of 2019 to begin working at Merriam Insurance as part of the administrative support team. (Right) Merriam, in background left, points to Dexter Benedict’s statue of William Seward and Harriet Tubman that was unveiled in May of 2019 at the Karen B. Johnson Library in downtown Schenectady.
After looking for evidence of God throughout the summer of 1983, Brian Merriam remembers being a little disappointed. All he had found was peace.
“I was driving back to Michigan and talking to myself, ‘what’s going on here God, you haven’t shown up,'” said Merriam, now 60 and in the midst of celebrating his family’s 125 years in the insurance business. “But I do remember a palpable sense of peace that I had not felt in a long time. I thought, ‘if this is what peace feels like, I want to try to get some more.'”
A Niskayuna native and long-time Schenectady resident, Merriam has been a pillar of the Schenectady community for more than three decades now since taking over the reigns of the Merriam Insurance Agency from his father, Charles W. Merriam. As well as donating his dollars and time to help dozens of local charitable groups, he’s also taken several trips to various third-world countries to help those less fortunate. Either as a representative of the Schenectady Rotary or the First Presbyterian Church in the Stockade, Merriam has been an extraordinary force for good.
“My wife tells me that my philanthropy is my legal intoxication,” said Merriam, smiling. “As long as I’m out there doing good, worthwhile things for people, I’m not doing bad things elsewhere.”
His many friends who admire Merriam now, however, wouldn’t recognize him as the long-haired rock n’ roller who drank and used drugs to excess during the late 1970s and early ’80s. Based in Grand Rapids after dropping out of college there, he was the lead guitar player in a band called Paradox, and enjoyed the partying that went with that lifestyle so much it nearly killed him.
“I had some kind of drug overdose and I thought I was dead,” remembered Merriam. “I thought to myself, ‘this is not going to happen to me.’ It would have killed me if I had stayed. So I came back home, stopped drinking and I stopped carousing, and I started going to church and reading the Bible.”
Merriam had come home during the late spring of 1983 after having gone back to school to finish up his political science degree from Calvin College in Grand Rapids. The idea was to test the waters of the family business.
“My dad and I were not on the best of terms then,” said Merriam. “He was very conservative and he wanted to put me in that box. It’s funny because he, too, wasn’t that conservative when he was younger. But we kind of did it as an experiment. He told me to cut my hair, and I had grown up a little bit by then. It went pretty well. He liked the way I interacted with the clients and by the end of the summer, he said, ‘why don’t you stay?'”
Merriam agreed to remain in Schenectady and immerse himself into the insurance business, but not before one more trip to Michigan to say goodbye to his girlfriend and his band mates. That’s when he had his “conversation” with a higher authority.
“I had decided I would make a deal with God,” said Merriam. “I wanted him to prove himself to me, and I was expecting some indisputable miracle. A visitation would have been nice, or to have him stand at the end of my bed and say, ‘Brian, we want you.’ That’s what I was looking for, but that’s wrong. That’s not the way to do it.”
The peace he suddenly felt, however, kept Merriam on the right path.
“When I was between 12 and 15 my parents went through a divorce and it was difficult on the family,” said Merriam, who has an older brother and sister. “It was a pretty tumultuous three years and I got into a lot of trouble. It wasn’t until that summer of 1983, the first time since 1972, that I actually experienced some peace. That seemed important to me.”
As Merriam returned to the church and his faith in God grew stronger, he also found another good spiritual partner in a talented young woman from Chenango Forks named Judi, who became his wife in 1985. They were introduced to each each other two years earlier at Camp Pinnacle in the Helderbergs,
“I met her at a church summer camp, and she wasn’t like the people I hung out with in my rock n’ roll days,” said Merriam, whose wife is also quite musical and has performed as a vocalist on various area stages, including the Schenectady Light Opera Company. “She was a public school teacher and she was different. When I came back from Michigan for good, I was engaged to her within seven months and now we’ve been together for 35 years.”
Merriam soon joined the Schenectady Rotary and got involved in a number of projects, including cleaning up I-890 and creating a small park where the entrance to SUNY-Schenectady County Community College winds its way near the Binnekill branch of the Mohawk River. The seed to Merriam’s philanthropy was planted, however, long before his faith in God became a huge force in his life.
“My father would spend weeks traveling internationally, and he never wanted to go as a tourist,” said Merriam. “He always went as part of some mission. He wanted a reason to be in those exotic places. When I was 15 I had the occasion to go with him, and he would pontificate, ‘God puts you here for a short season, so use that season to bring about benefit for someone else.’ The Rotary has given me great structure to support the idea of making the planet a better place, but my father instilled in me that idea of helping others a long time ago.”
By 2011, Merriam was well known and highly respected in both business and religious circles in and around Schenectady. However, life took a tragic turn for the Merriams in December of that year when their middle child, 18-year-old Jenson, committed suicide.
“It’s something you never get over, but you learn to live through it,” said Merriam, who had taken all three of his children on trips to Haiti. “I went down there with my daughter about five years ago, and at the end of one day I realized that I had not thought about my son; because I do think about him every day. I actually had a sense of guilt about it. But I came to the conclusion while I was in Haiti that as bad as my suffering is, it doesn’t compare to what they’re suffering daily in Haiti. The  earthquake killed a quarter of a million people in 37 seconds. Twenty-thousand kids instantly became orphans. Americans can’t imagine the suffering those people are dealing with every day.”
While his philanthropic activities helped Merriam work his way through his grief, it was quite a struggle.
“After my son’s death I thought I was ruined,” said Merriam. “I didn’t work for two months. I didn’t care. But working with these poor children on my trips to Haiti, it leaves little room to think about myself. It has been my redemption. It forces me out of my own lens. It reminds me of the passage from Corinthians about suffering, and how suffering begs you to bare the suffering of others.”
Merriam’s faith in God is demonstrated in a number of ways, including his 9 to 5, Monday through Friday routine at the office.
“We don’t proselytize and we don’t have a symbol of Christ on our business cards, but we do have a business statement that I haven’t seen in any other organization,” said Merriam. “We honor God and we provide for the community. I put that in place about 20 years ago because I wanted our clients, our prospective clients, and our employees to know where we stand. We want to maintain a high standard, and I think our integrity separates us from a lot of our competitors. It’s easy to take advantage of people in the insurance business. We don’t. We put the best interests of our clients first, not our own.”
Merriam backs up his words with actions in a number of ways. The receptionist at his office is a young Haitian woman he met on a trip there two years ago, and his business also sponsors more than 100 Christian homeless shelters around the country. His example of helping others in so many ways has made a big impression on Mike Saccocio, director of the City Mission in Schenectady.
“He’s always looking beyond today, and has this great vision about how to make a better community,” said Saccocio. “He is persistent, he is resilient, and when he’s committed to something he rolls up his sleeve and gets to work. Whether it’s a statue to celebrate our history, his work in Haiti and other places, or just helping people, he is an over achiever.”
The statues Saccocio refers to are the works of Penn Yan sculptor Dexter Benedict. Merriam was one of the primary people involved in the creation of Benedict’s work, which include the Thomas Edison-Charles Steinmetz statue erected on Erie Boulevard in 2015, the bust of Steinmetz on Wendall Avenue in 2016, and just last year the William Seward-Harriet Tubman statue now outside the Karen B. Johnson Library in downtown Schenectady.
“When he gets his mind set on something and believes in it, he’s gonna make sure it happens,” said Jim Hurley, who owns Home Instead Senior Care in Schenectady. “I spent a week with him in Haiti and you really get to know someone doing that. He’s very spiritual, but it’s not like he’s born again, and he never tries to convert anyone. He gives invocations at our Rotary meetings and you can just tell he really feels it. In Haiti that week, he bowed his head before every meal. He’s the kind of guy you really respect.”
For fellow Schenectady Rotarian Amy Brule, people don’t get any better than Merriam.
“He’s very dependable when we set up a work project,” said Brule. “Whether it’s cleaning up 890 or Vale Park, he’ll be there with his jeans on working hard, doing the best he can to help others. I’m so happy to say that I can call him my friend. He’s just the person you’d want to be your friend.”
Merriam, who is a registered Republican, did take one run at political office about 10 years ago but lost his bid at a seat on the City Council that was and remains heavily Democratic.
“I walked all over the city and rang about 3,000 doorbells, but in this city it’s a lot easier if you have a D in front of your name,” said Merriam. “Now, in the last three years, people have become so polarized they don’t want to even listen to the other side. And, my grandfather was in politics and my dad would tell us how it took so much time away from the family. My wife would probably kill me, so I can’t see myself trying it again.”