June 2, 2020

Aged 98, Mervin Roberts Reflects on 50 Years Service as Old Lyme Fire Department Chaplain

Old Lyme Fire Department (OLFD) Chaplain Mervin Roberts pictured in his OLFD uniform at home last week. Photo submitted.

Editor’s Note: We are deeply indebted to Mr. Mervin Roberts for making himself available for interview and Michele Dickey for both interviewing him and then writing this article, all done at very short notice and in record time. Tomorrow, we will proudly publish the text of the homily that Mr. Roberts had prepared for the Memorial Day service, which is traditionally held at Duck River Cemetery following the parade.

Author’s Note: After Old Lyme announced it was cancelling the Memorial Day parade and exercises this year due to the pandemic, Old Lyme Fire Department (OLFD) Chaplain Mervin F. Roberts e-mailed the homily to me that he had already prepared to deliver at the ceremony and asked if it could be included in the town report, which I compile. His homily ends by saying that he has long been a member of the OLFD and, now in his 98th year, he can no longer remain active as chaplain, so this will probably be his last homily.

I called him to say I would be honored to include it in the town report, which comes out in mid-January, but wouldn’t he like it to appear sooner and at a more appropriate time, perhaps in LymeLine and the CT Examiner? He liked that idea very much, and daughter Edie Ritz Main asked that it appear on Memorial Day if possible.

Being aware of the fact that I have known Mr. Roberts since I was young and was a classmate of his daughter Martha, the publisher of LymeLine, Olwen Logan, asked if I might request an interview with this long-time friend of mine to find out more about being the OLFD’s first — and now 50-year! — chaplain. 

Mervin Roberts, who has served as Chaplain of the Old Lyme Fire Department for over 50 years. Photo submitted.

Mervin F. Roberts joined the volunteer Old Lyme Fire Department (OLFD) by driving trucks and fighting fires, including the infamous fire in January 1971 that destroyed the historic Ferry Tavern Inn and Restaurant. Along the way, he was elected the department’s first chaplain. No one asked him to become chaplain, and the department had never had one prior.

“I didn’t know I was doing it; I just did it! I went into it completely blind but there was something lacking, and I did it. We never had a fire chaplain elected before me, so I really don’t have much to go on. Then someone made a motion there be a chaplain among the officers. Prior to me, the Reverend Dixon Hoag of First Congregational Church of Old Lyme would fill spiritual needs, but he wasn’t a member of the fire department and I never saw him at the fire house. He came because he was a good friend of our fire chief, Everett Burke.”

A smiling Mervin Roberts, Chaplain of Old Lyme’s Fire Department and American Legion Veteran of the Year 2016-17, stands with the Reverend Mark Robinson, former minister of Saint Ann’s, after the 2017 Memorial Day ceremony, which was held in Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School due to inclement weather that year. File photo.

If asked why he was chaplain, Roberts would respond dryly, “I had a black suit.” But the truth is that he saw “a crying need” for someone to speak up at meetings and address moral and ethical questions; what should we do in certain situations … like getting cats out of trees? “We had no business getting cats out of trees!”

There is a Federation of Fire Chaplains that now requires chaplains to be “ecclesiastically certified or endorsed by a recognized religious body.” Roberts is not a minister. He attended Alfred University in Alfred, NY, during and after the Second World War, when he served as an officer in the Navy in the Pacific for four years and one week, earning a bachelor’s degree in Glass Technology.

As so many times before, Old Lyme Fire Department Chaplain Mervin Roberts reads the homily at the 2019 Memorial Day ceremony in Duck River Cemetery.

Also he took postgraduate courses in ethics and the literature of the Old Testament, but he admits he took these courses “not in anticipation of fire-department chaplaincy” but because he enjoyed sitting near a girl he liked who took them as well! “These were the closest I got to formal education in chaplaincy,” he added.

He elaborated further on the subject in an essay he wrote in January 2019 entitled, “On Serving as Fire Chaplain,” in which he noted, “Then, there is the matter of denomination. Although I happen to be a Christian, I am careful when in public prayer not to go much further than to pronounce that God is love. So then, what do I do? Simply, I try to bring comfort to the afflicted without being invasive.”

Chaplain Mervin Roberts (left) walks with fellow firefighter leaders in the 2014 Memorial Day parade as it heads down McCurdy towards the cemetery.

For local residents, it’s hard to imagine “Merv” Roberts as being invasive. He’s a well-known, widely-liked personage in town. That situation may have been helped by the fact that he and his late wife, Edith, had lived in town almost continually since 1960 and raised six children here so was known as a dad in a range of school circles.

He is published in the fields of conservation, science, raising pets, and local history, to name a few; he is a popular speaker and has served the town for 10 years as a selectman. He has always been widely recognized in Old Lyme’s Memorial Day Parade, either marching down the street with members of the OLFD or riding in one of the firetrucks. He is especially noted for his homilies at the Duck River Cemetery, which is the parade’s destination.

In this photo from the memorial day Service taken last year, Chaplain Mervin Roberts (second from left) sits with the 2019 Veterans of Foreign Wars essay contest winners to his left and Father Joe from Christ the King Church to his right. File photo.

In creating what he feels may be his last such homily, Roberts realized that, over the years, they follow a similar pattern. He always muses on why so many residents of all ages choose to gather here one day a year. Is it the parade itself, or the free hot dogs offered at the firehouse at the parade’s conclusion?  Roberts mused, “We’re of a piece and we should revel in it. So few towns gather like ours does. It keeps our community close and we should keep doing it.”

His words resonate especially on Memorial Day since, in some sense, we mourn, and in another, we celebrate; we mourn the passing of all the various people and types of people buried in this particular cemetery, who have influenced our lives, from preachers and teachers to bird watchers (Roger Tory Peterson is buried here) and duck hunters, who watch birds for a totally different reason.

Taken together, they form what Roberts calls “a web of life.” Old Lyme has 12 cemeteries, and Roberts has conducted funerals for probably about that many deceased buried among them. He’s performed weddings for members as well, “in parlors and public halls,” and renewals of vows. As with funerals, all are “free of charge.” 

Chaplain Mervin Roberts reads the homily at the Memorial Day service held at Duck River Cemetery in 2015. Photo by John Ward

But Roberts’ efforts as chaplain have taken him farther afield to wherever he thinks he can be useful while representing the fire department. He visits hospitals and nursing homes or makes a phone call or sends a note or flowers or chocolates or, if the occasion arises, an engraved baby mug.

“Much of what I do is confidential, between me and the aggrieved,” he explains. But his role as chaplain over these past 50 years is not limited to supporting OLFD members and their families, or even the whole Old Lyme community. Earlier this month he was invited to be part of an honor guard of remembrance for a Memorial Day service for the New London Police and officials, with the New London Fire Department there as well.

It was held at the police station and included a flag raising — a uniformed service for those no longer with us. Chaplain Roberts, in uniform, offered the benediction. “I’m amazed, astonished, and confused that so few fire departments have chaplains,” he commented.

Mervin Roberts walks past the tree memorial set up in Newtown to honor the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings. Photo by Mary Jo Nosal.

He went even further following the Sandy Hook tragedy in December 2012. Without being ordered or asked to attend, he represented the OLFD in uniform and attended along with Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal. He paid his respects with the officials, then stood in a reviewing line as the caskets went by at the funeral of the victims.

Mervin Roberts relaxes at home in Old Lyme this week with his pet dog. Photo by Michele Dickey.

He did this not only as a show of respect for the victims but also as a show of solidarity with the police, who were obviously devastated that this tragedy should befall young children, teachers, and administrators in Newtown.

Chaplain Roberts has filled a need for over 50 years for the Old Lyme community and beyond that we didn’t even realize we had!

While he may plan to create no new homilies, he produced five handwritten pages of notes overnight for this interview; he is an inveterate writer, to which his well-organized shelves of published and unpublished works will attest.

His autobiography, in two volumes, is already in the Old Lyme-Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library … in one form or another, there is undoubtedly more to come! 

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Comments

  1. Cynthia Cahouet Fulreader says

    Wonderful article about a wonderful man, Mr. Mervin Roberts. I lived and grew up across the street from the Roberts family, at the entrance to Duck River Lane, so they are like family to me. Glad to see this important chapter of Old Lyme history captured so well. Mr. Roberts is a terrific community steward, story teller, and teacher of many things, especially the sciences of the natural world. Grateful for my friends, the Roberts children, Edie, Martha, Nancy, and Neil, all of whom are now parents themselves, and for their wonderful children and grandchildren.

  2. Thank you sharing this beautiful tribute to an amazing man.

  3. Diane Bates says

    Fabulous article to share with all of us that know and love the whole family. As I often visit my parents cemetery site, I always say a quiet hello to Mr. Roberts. ❤️❤️❤️

  4. D.W. Ross, Jr. says

    A living legacy and a man among men. His children and grandchildren and great children follow a trail blazed with insights, honor, compassion, and depth of living. Every time I’ve spent time with this precious man, has left me wiser, more caring, and thankful to call him a friend. He inspired me to become a Chaplin for our Pembroke Volunteer Fire Department in Pembroke, Maine.

  5. Jennifer Symonds says

    Mervin is the king of Old Lyme.
    God bless him for all that he does.
    You have gave Old Lyme the will and strength to survive.
    You give us the kindness, that all should value.
    Thank you for your service.

  6. Bill Appleby says

    This a great tribute to a great man, a great Father and Grandfather, a great citizen of Old Lyme and Connecticut and maybe most of all, a great Mentor. Mervin often speaks through his homilies of history the great citizens of Old Lyme. The Silver Star awardees, the inventors of equipment and gadgets we all take for granted in our lives and the Statesmen, Politicians, Farmers, Merchants and even occasionally an Ornithologist who rest in our graveyards.

    Mervin has an acumen for small details around our community, and fulsome memories of how things were in Old Lyme past. Why does the overhead highway pass on Lyme Street look the way it does in Old Lyme and no other Town on the Shoreline? Why do our oysters and mussels die when the nearest pollution maker is in Middletown? How does a frog jump?

    He has over a dozen books published many could be textbooks for a senior year ichthyologists. The books don’t read as a text book written by a scientist, but a hobbiest who knows more than a few things about the subject. Their forward, equal in length to his homilies, recognized those in the field both local and abroad who probably used his book as a reference for their own college textbook.

    In 2017-2018, Mervin was honored as American Legion Post 41 Lyme’s Legionnaire of the Year. During that ceremony it was noted that Mervin was a Veteran of the US Navy, serving aboard a ship in the Pacific Theater and he earned his combat stripes many times over.

    I cherish his advise, our chats, and I thank him for joining me and my wife together (on a cold St. Patricks Day at our favorite kayak launch site!). As I reread this “comment”, I recognize I have graduated from the Mervin Roberts’ School of Writing, although it might not be as eloquent as his writings.

    Mervin has for the last several years claimed he has written his “last homily”. Some day that will happen, when that time comes, Mervin will take his place next to the great ones and we can proudly say we stand on the shoulders of another great one.

  7. Michele Dickey says

    Thank you to all who enjoyed this interview; it really was a gift, an honor, and a privilege to be able to spend time with this great man on his sun porch, along with daughter Edie and adorable dog, Harley. Mr. Roberts, hope to see you again soon!

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