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Susanna Merritt, Gorrie teacher and mother, dies at 51

DAVIS ISLANDS — Susanna Merritt didn't marry and start her family until she was in her mid 30s. She didn't find a career she was passionate about until 10 years after that.

She was just 51 when she died of ovarian cancer April 12. Her life was shorter than most, but because she became a mother and began teaching elementary school, she thought it was perfect.

She loved teaching so much that even after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a little over two years ago, she went to work every day, teaching second-graders at John B. Gorrie Elementary School.

Her family didn't need the money, and no one would have blamed her if she quit working and relaxed for the last few years of her life.

"The only reason she kept teaching was that she wanted to teach," said her husband, Joe Merritt.

Mrs. Merritt as born and raised in Bartow. Her father was a chemist, and her mother taught at a private school that Mrs. Merritt's grandmother owned.

She graduated from Florida State University and moved to Tampa in the early 1980s, where she began a successful career as a technical writer.

She worked first for Beall's Department Stores and later for Verizon. Her work consisted mostly of writing manuals that detailed how to use computers, software and other technology.

"These were massive volumes that she wrote," her husband said. "She didn't have a background in that kind of thing. She just learned it as she went along."

It was while she was working at Beall's that she met her husband, who worked there as a buyer. They married 15 years ago.

A lot of people might have considered the work of a technical writer tedious, but Mrs. Merritt thrived in that career. She might never have changed careers, her husband said, if she hadn't been so devoted to their son, Andrew, now 13.

"She wanted to able to spend more time with him," Joe Merritt said. "She wanted to be home when he was home."

Mrs. Merritt returned to college, earning a master's degree in education from the University of South Florida in 2005. She wanted to teach at Gorrie, where Andrew was a student, but there were no openings. She taught first grade at Philip Shore Elementary for one year and then transferred to Gorrie.

From the time she started teaching, her life consisted almost entirely of career and family.

"My son was her hobby," her husband said. "She loved long car trips, and I hate them. So she'd put our son in the car, and they'd go on trips all over the country. I'd fly up later and meet them."

Doctors diagnosed Mrs. Merritt with ovarian cancer in January 2008. As she had with technical writing, she learned everything she could about a subject that she knew little about and then tried to educate others.

"She wanted everyone to know about it," her husband said. "Ovarian cancer actually kills more people than breast cancer, but you don't hear as much about it. There's no early test."

In recent years when she wasn't teaching or spending time with Andrew, Mrs. Merritt devoted herself to ovarian cancer support groups. In the short time she had left, she did everything she could to raise awareness of the disease and help raise funds for research. She wanted to help others, even though she knew there was nothing that could be done to save her life.

"Once you're diagnosed, there's not really much they can do," her husband said. "They treat it like chronic disease. Some people live a year, some people live five years, but no one lives much longer than that. So we had about as much time as we expected."

Besides her husband and her son, Mrs. Merritt is survived by her mother, Sue Hunter Perrin, and her brothers, Gene and John Perrin.

Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at mclear@tampabay.rr.com.

Susanna Merritt, Gorrie teacher and mother, dies at 51 04/22/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 21, 2010 5:47pm]
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