By: Dale King Contributing Writer
To say that Dr. Merrilee Ruth Middleton devoted more than 80 years of her life to the cause of mental health education is not an exaggeration.
She got her first try-out at age 5 when she became the youngest volunteer at First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald, Ga. There, she listened intently to others speak at a Seniors Sunday School class.
The innovator pushed ahead with her own education as she eyed a career in the mental health field. After graduating high school in 1949, she went to Stetson University and earned a bachelor’s degree in business education. More importantly, she and Professor Elizabeth Faulk helped Dr. George Hood establish the college’s first counseling center.
She later became a guidance counselor at two different schools, one of them Boca Raton Community High School, and went on to become founder in 1998 of Boca’s Promise, the Alliance for Youth – a local chapter of America’s Promise established by former Secretary of State, General Colin Powell.
A few weeks after Dr. Middleton’s death at age 86 on June 5, 2019, a “Celebration of Life” was conducted at the Babione-Kraeer Funeral Home in Boca Raton. Refreshments, hugs, a guest book signing and a buffet preceded the formal program that drew dozens of the educator’s admirers, family and colleagues. They offered an array of memories running from humorous to thoughtful, with references to the doctor’s warmth, consideration and kind manner.
Boca’s Promise President/CEO Rita Thrasher, who succeeded Dr. Middleton as head of that organization, led the lengthy period of remembrance.
Dr. Middleton was one of the founding board members of Boca’s Promise. Two of the doctor’s companions from that board were present at the evening of remembrance, Mary Jane Graff and Judith Chason. Also present was Debbie Leising, whose mother, Pat Thomas, also an original board member, could not attend.
Graff remembered how the board “watched [the organization] grow and came up with new ideas.” She said Merrilee was a bit apprehensive at first. “She said, ‘Mary Jane, can we do this?’”
They did – and it has worked for more than 20 years.
Everyone in the room seemed to understand the significance of the little red wagon on a table at the front of the room, just below a painting of Dr. Middleton, surrounded by bouquets of colorful flowers.
From the start of America’s Promise, the little red wagon has been the organization’s “simple, yet powerful image,” Gen. Powell announced at the time. “The little red wagon is a promise and a challenge. Early on, we pull our children along and nurture them. As they grow, they begin to pull the wagon for themselves. If the load grows too heavy, people who care will help pull the weight.”
“The most important part is the black handle that comes up. It is that black handle that allows an adult to reach down, pull the wagon along and make the way of life a little easier for a child who needs some help.”
“Merrilee called it the little red wagon that could,” Leising said.
In 1997, she was invited by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles to be one of five state delegates to organize “Communities of Promise” in Florida and to attend a Presidential Summit for America’s Youth in Philadelphia. She came back to form Boca’s Promise.
“She returned from the summit charged up with positive energy to get these people to make a difference; to help the youth of America,” Leising noted. Another friend recalled how Merrilee said the organization’s symbol “started out as a little red wagon, but ended up an 18-wheeler.”
“Merrilee is known as the cornerstone of mental health,” said Rita Thrasher, a sentiment expressed by others in the crowd. It was also noted that Middleton and Dr. Elizabeth Faulk combined to establish community counseling services for Palm Beach and Broward county residents. They also created a Center for Group Counseling which opened in a rented storefront, then moved in 1981 to a building on Boca Rio Road.
Dr. Middleton has been recognized with achievement awards from the Florida Institute of Suicide Prevention, Soroptomist International of Boca Raton/Deerfield Beach and Palm Beach State College in Boca Raton.
Two of the caregivers who tended to Dr. Middleton at the time of her declining health offered poignant thoughts of her. “She was a wonderful lady, an angel,” said Cynthia. “She said to me near the end, ‘I’m going home, Cynthia.’ She loved life. She loved people.”
Another caregiver, Hyacinth, said she “worked with her for five years. She cared about us and she cared about what we do.”
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to: Boca Raton’s Promise, 7 Royal Palm Way, #608, Boca Raton, FL 33432.