By Harry McCawley

IT’S a pretty good bet that no one has kept count of decisions about the future of Hope that have been made in the “surprising little” community’s Town Hall.

It’s an even better bet that up until 1994 far more projects and ideas got their start in one of the aisles or behind the counter at a grocery store on the town square. That’s where residents would seek out the store’s owner, Merrill Clouse.

“It was pretty much of a given that when people started talking about projects or events that would improve the town someone in the group would say, ‘Let’s go down to the store and see what Merrill thinks,’” said Barb Johnson, a Hope native and community activist. “In a way Clouse’s Market was the unofficial town hall.”

Even when he sold the store in 1994, the unofficial town hall simply moved to wherever Merrill was when people wanted his advice and, more importantly, his stamp of approval.

“I always made it a point whenever I was supporting a particular project in Hope to tell the audience that I had talked to Merrill about it,” said Howard “Bud” Herron, another Hope native and former publisher of The Republic. “He was so respected that people picked him out as the first person they wanted to talk with about their projects.”

Future generations of Hope residents who want to improve their town will be denied that opportunity. Merrill died April 13 at the age of 95.

“He was an idea man,” Barb said. “During the first Heritage Days event, all of the merchants put out storefront displays of antiques and artifacts from the town’s past. Merrill considered the items in those displays as part of the community’s history and suggested that we create a single space where they could be displayed for all to see.”

That led to the creation of the Yellow Trail Museum, an endeavor that Merrill not only envisioned but saw to fruition in part by offering space to house the materials. While his advice was widely sought, his involvement was treasured even more.

“If you cataloged all of the positive things that have been accomplished in Hope since World War II, you’d find that Merrill Clouse was involved in most, if not all of them,” Bud said. “He set the gold standard for community service.”

Some might measure that standard from the years following the war when Merrill returned to Hope upon completion of his military service.

One of his first areas of involvement was with the Hope Fire Department, which was a loosely knit collection of townspeople under the auspices of the town marshal. Merrill led a movement to reorganize the group, putting in place a separate volunteer fire department and serving as its chief for more than 26 years. He would be a member of the department for more than 50 years.

That proved to be only the tip of the iceberg as far as his community involvement was concerned.

He was in the forefront of the school consolidation movement of the 1960s when a group of township schools were merged into the Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp., and he became the first president of the newly formed school board.

Later he was one of the moving forces in earning national recognition for Hope by convincing officials of the Rural Letter Carriers Association to set up a museum on the town square.

Make no mistake, Merrill was far from a one-man show, and he didn’t believe in operating in a vacuum. Through the post-war years Hope was blessed with a small army of like-minded activists, but more often than not, the impetus for their efforts was provided by Merrill.

“You have to understand that people in Hope don’t always see eye to eye on things,” Barb said. “There have been times when things got pretty heated during community meetings or some people were just flat out against a particular idea. That’s when Merrill could be at his best. He had a marvelous wit and sense of humor. He was able to defuse situations simply by telling a joke, and in a few minutes people who had been at each other’s throats were discussing ways to make things work.”

Some of those innate skills came from the fact that he knew his community so well. “As a child, he knew everybody in town,” Barb said.

That was demonstrated for Bud a few years ago when he and other Hope supporters were exploring the possibility of creating a community foundation.

“Bill Lentz and I met with Merrill and asked if he thought there might be adequate resources in Hope to raise $500,000 for a permanent endowment,” he said. “Merrill wasn’t sure, but he suggested that we take a drive around the community and do an informal inventory about what might be available. That drive turned out to be a lesson plan for us as Merrill would point out properties and the owners who might be willing to support such an idea.”

Upon completion of the tour, Merrill was still unsure there was enough money in Hope for the envisioned permanent endowment of $500,000, but he encouraged the group to move forward since it would benefit Hope. Incidentally, the Hawcreek-Flat Rock Area Endowment currently has assets of $700,000.

In a sense, Merrill’s spirit of community involvement and caring were evidenced in earlier generations.

Bud remembers working as a high school student at the market in the 1960s. “For years Merrill (and his father Inman before him) kept a card index file on the counter next to the cash register. People who didn’t have money to pay for their groceries would pick their card out of the box and fill in the amount they had purchased with an eye to paying their bill when they had enough money. The Clouses literally were feeding dozens of families, and I’m sure some of those bills were never paid.”

Merrill died a year and three days after the death of his wife, Norma. Had she lived, the couple would have celebrated their 75th anniversary this January. In a way their life together mirrors the love they had not only for each other but for the town they called home.

It was exemplified 15 years ago on their 60th anniversary, an event that normally calls for a couple to be feted by family and friends. Not Merrill and Norma. They invited the whole town to be their guests at an ice cream social.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.