Recent Obituaries
In Memoriam Archive

Jerene Kirkman Merritt ’72

February 23, 2022, in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Contributed by Teresa Doane ’72

Jerene Kirkman was born in San Diego in 1950; her father, Tom Kirkman, had a career in the navy; and her mother, Joan, was a professional commercial artist. Jerene lived a peripatetic military family life with her sister, Laurie, and recounted a magical childhood of exploring creeks in Bucks County and tidepools in Virginia Beach. At the same time, it was difficult to establish roots. They returned to San Diego, where Jerene was active in service and science clubs at high school and played the viola in the orchestra.

She arrived at Reed in the fall of ’68 during a time of great social upheaval and unrest. Assassinations of political leaders, the war in Vietnam, riots, and mass demonstratons challenged the status quo while the hippie movement questioned cultural norms. It was a tumultuous yet heady time for a young person. Reed offered a student environment that eagerly explored these chaotic shifting perspectives while also vigorously challenging the values of an established academia—all of which Jerene observed and partook of with passion. She occupied Eliot Hall in her senior year in protest of the escalation of the Vietnam War, delaying the filing of her thesis, “Lingua Sublima Nabokov,” until fall, per the recollection of Jean Langford ’74, who protested alongside Jerene and other Reedies.

Some of Jerene’s most affirming experiences at Reed were classes with Prof. James Webb [English 1965–71], who gave space to and opened up the discussion of gender and women in literature—which was a rarity those days in academia and the wider world. At that time, gendered perspectives were not given due consideration, and with regard to women specifically, prevalent thinking was that women had simply not accomplished anything of historical significance. Webb was an iconoclastic teacher, and his probing, often scathing critiques of literary and socioeconomic norms and thinking confirmed for Jerene the value of the alternative perspective, which became her lifelong mode. Rooming off campus with the likes of pranksters George Lappas ’73, Demitri Sofianopoulos ’73, Ellen (Zatz) Litt ’73, and Jean Langford added yet other global and questioning perspectives on culture, psychology, film, and art, with a good measure of humorous hijink thrown in.

A literature major, Jerene served on the Reed film board, advocating for the works of foundational directors such as Eisenstein, Renoir, Fellini, and Bergman. She also painted and hung posters for the weekly films; among her favorites was one she painted for La Strada, featuring a skillful rendering of Giulietta Massina in the lead. Alumni may remember other artwork, such as a large mosaic banner of Jim Webb that hung in the canyon (and which she created in support of a Webb challenge to the community), and a medieval dragon she crafted out of paper maché and patchwork, then enlisting a crew to dance the dragon through a festive student throng in celebration of a long-awaited Portland spring.

When guerilla theater became an interest, she built and conducted a pop-up tollbooth at the exit of the main parking lot, at which point faculty and staff were invited to make impromptu exchanges with students. Another fond memory was spending Paideia foraging the Reed campus for edible plants, scoring nettles and horsetail. In the fall at the campus’s edge, she would gather chestnuts and walnuts, roasting them in the fireplaces of the Woodstock dorms. Through the years, the campus would continue to be a source of wonder for her, just as the many ideas and experiences that were introduced through classes and student life continued to be discussed and pondered throughout her years.

After graduation from Reed, Jerene immersed herself in the burgeoning women’s cultural movement, working in bookstore collectives in Seattle (Madwomen) and Eugene (Mother Kali). With her friend Mary Narkiewicz, she explored a farming venture in Vermont, but winters proved too cold for her. Returning to the Pacific Northwest, she studied naturopathic modalities and completed an internship at Bastyr College, then in 1986 achieved her MA in counseling and psychology at Lewis & Clark. Her career path landed her in the Portland public school system, where she worked the remainder of her professional life until retirement, first in the teen parent program, then, when that program was eliminated due to budget cuts, as the head clerk for enrollments and transfers.

In 1983, Jerene married Noel Merritt. She discovered he had a Reed connection: while she was focused on her studies, he had become a wandering, disaffected vet, sleeping many nights on the Reed lawn. They were to laugh at that many times, and to enjoy years of life together, traveling to Mexico and to Europe. They shared a love of books, and Jerene loved to read books out loud to her friends and family who were scattered over distances. In her last year, she privately published her father’s memoirs for his 95th birthday; before that she worked actively with family to create an honorary retrospective of her mother’s paintings at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Washington. Jerene contributed to many environmental and social justice causes; but above all she was ever the consummate friend, daughter, sister, and cousin.

She is survived by her husband, Noel; father and sister, Tom and Laurie Kirkman, as well as other family members; her dear friend, Mary Narkiewicz; and others of her close but wide circle.

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2022

comments powered by Disqus