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Hometown boy always knew he'd return to Duncan

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Eldon Merrell

If you're ever at Duncan High School you might think you're seeing many clones of Eldon Merrell. One minute he's sitting behind the desk seeing to the administrative duties of a superintendent and principal. The next he's teaching English and the next he's coaching boys basketball or some other sport.

He says he's just doing what needs to be done. Those who know him think he's just a wonder.

Merrell hired Duncan High School graduate Kayla Presley five years ago to teach agriculture. She's never looked back.

"He's just a really special boss and he does a great job, despite the fact he's superintendent and principal and bus driver and basketball coach and maintenance man and all of these other things," Merrell said.

She doesn't know how he does it, but Merrell always finds time for his staff. When COVID-19 hit, he was honest with them about how difficult things would get, but still managed to calm their fears, she said.

"He told all of us teachers he's like, 'Be prepared because this is probably going to be the hardest school year that you ever have to teach.' And he said, 'If you don't think you can handle it, you need to come talk to me now because we need to figure something out,'" Presley said.

She thought she'd be fine, but after two weeks she was falling apart, she said.

"I had to call him and I was like, I don't know if I can do this. I was struggling. It was so hard to teach these kids online. I wasn't used to it and I felt like I was failing the kids," Presley said. "He had such a a special way of bringing me back down to Earth. He told me 'Look at what you've done. Look at the impact you're having on these kids.'"

After the pep talk, Presley felt she could go on.

DHS student Conlan Jensen has been playing basketball for Merrell for three years and is currently taking his English class. 

"He's always wanting to help you strive to get better in whatever you want to accomplish, whether it's during a basketball game or in a classroom," Jensen said. "He always pushes you to do better, even if you don't believe in yourself."

The kids know that he cares for them because he always shows up for games even if he's not coaching them, Jensen said.

Retired Greenlee County Schools Superintendent Tom Powers is thrilled a Duncan native is at the helm. Merrell graduated from DHS in 1984, obtained a bachelor's degree in animal science from Colorado State and a bachelor's degree in agriculture education from the University of Arizona. His master's degree in educational leadership came from Northern Arizona University.  

Powers knows Merrell's parents, both of them teachers, and remembers watching Merrell play ball for the Wildkats.

"I'll tell you what. Eldon brings to the table exactly what they need down there. What I mean is, he grew up in the community, understands the community and is either kin to everybody or knows everybody," Power said. "He knows who to reach out to and he can communicate with them. If you bring somebody in from out of town to try to run one of those little schools like that, it would never work. They might make it six months or a year, and that'd be it, you know. They wouldn't trust you."

It's clear Merrell really cares about his kids and community, Powers said.

"He is really trying to do the best he can for them with limited resources. They don't have all the resources in the world to run their school, but he's real creative and he's always trying to find grants to help these kids," Powers said. 

He absolutely does care about his community, Merrell said.

He may have gone away to college, but he always knew where he'd end up. 

"I always felt that I was one that was going to come home and help my parents with their farming," Merrell said. "This is where I always wanted to be."

Since he didn't want to work for the mines or the county, he chose to go into education and he chose to teach agriculture because he loves nothing more than working on the farm and being around animals. He figured he'd enjoy passing that knowledge on to kids who grew up just like he did.

He began his career as an agriculture teacher in Bowie, spent seven years teaching in Duncan and then took a job in Willcox. Once he had experience as a principal, Merrell made his way home 15 years ago.

"The best part about Duncan is no traffic on the roads. There are no big lights, there are wide open spaces and you can see the mountains because you can see the outdoors," Merrell said. "I like open space and no crowds. And I like small communities."

The married father of six loves that he got to spend extra time with his children as they went through the school system. Having so many "extra" duties is not a big deal to him.

"I do what needs done. If there's something that needs done, I do it," Merrell said. "It's a small school. I don't want to list all the things I did today.  It's different from tomorrow. And next year will be different from last year."

The most important thing is he loves being around the kids and his staff.

"I've stayed in education because I like people. I like working with people. I enjoy the interaction with the students, and actually, that's the fun part, working with kids," Merrell said. "I love seeing them succeed. It doesn't matter what they succeed in. Just seeing them excel and succeed and grow. It's a lot of fun."

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