Professor Dies, Colleagues Remember His 50+ Years at SCSU
ST. CLOUD -- A professor that dedicated over 50 years to St. Cloud State University has passed away and his legacy will forever be ingrained on campus.
Gerald "Jerry" Mertens taught in the Psychology Department since 1965. St. Cloud State University's Archives claim Mertens is the longest-serving faculty member in the school's 150-year history.
Leslie Valdes is an Associate Professor of Psychology at SCSU. She had worked with Mertens for 25 years. She says she'll always remember their in-depth discussions.
"He was a good story-teller, he and I would argue on occasion about the field of psychology. The way Jerry conceptualize psychology was very different from the way I conceptualize psychology. We had some really interesting discussions on our two worldviews on the discipline."
Valdes says outside of their discussions she'll miss being able to joke with Mertens. She says it's sad to see his desk empty.
"It's a little odd to go past his office now and he's not there, to have the door closed because the door was perpetually open and he was usually there. Some faculty have trouble having 10 hours of office hours and that was not a problem that Jerry ever had."
Mertens spent many hours in the office outside of his scheduled hours. Valdes says it wasn't uncommon to find him in the office on breaks or weekends.
Joseph Melcher is the Chair of the Psychology Department. He worked with Mertens for 18 years. Melcher says Mertens was familiar with an older approach to studying psychology. He says this different approach helped him better understand Mertens as a person.
"He was also very personable, kind of a chatty guy and we had some good discussions over the years, along with some strong disagreements you might say. He came from a tradition in psychology that pre-dated and is rather different from the research traditions that Dr. Valdes and I were inculcated with."
Mertens different approach to understanding psychology followed him into the classroom. Valdes says he was known to be a very hands-on professor that loved exams.
"He did what was called oral testing. So students would be randomly called and asked a question and they'd have so much time to answer it. If they didn't then someone else would answer it. His classes worked really well for people who needed structure and need encouragement to do their assignments."
Mertens never took a sick day as he taught at SCSU. He prided himself on powering through illness. Valdez says they were surprised when Mertens announced his retirement after last semester.
"He was philosophically opposed to retirement. He thought everybody should work and he was very proud of [his work]. His whole life he had a job, I think even has a kid he has a little job. He worked all of his life and he really was committed to making a difference."
Mertens graduated high school in 1954. He later joined the United States Air Force. In a blog that he kept online for students, he says he had no plans to attend college until after he was subjected to an LSD experiment in the Air Force.
"When I was in the military, I volunteered as a human guinea pig for a military LSD experiment. The experience had a big influence on me. Some drug experts fear an escalation of drug use when exposed to drugs as a youth. I was young in the military, going in shortly after high school. Escalation of drug use has not happened to me in my life. I have never been drunk. I have not used any other addictive type drugs and never used LSD or derivatives again. As a matter of fact until very recently when my family doctor suggested aspirin as good for preventing heart issues in old folks, I had not even taken a dozen aspirins in my life."
Mertens says because of this experiment it sparked his interest in psychology and he decided to attend undergraduate school while in the military.
As he arrived at St. Cloud State in 1965 he says many students were fixated on psychics and psychic readings. This led to him incorporating magic and psychic topics into his course material. Valdes says Mertens always pushed students to find the illusion.
"He did what was called Ellery Queen demonstrations where he showed a trick and the students had to figure out how it was done, what was the sleight of hand. The object was to encourage critical thinking."
Outside of the classroom, Mertens is credited with forming The Association for Behavior Analysis International. He also helped start the longest running faculty discussion group, POETS and was the first advisor for the first-ever LGBT support group on campus.
In his free time, Mertens love playing Santa Claus during the holidays. He was offered the chance to be Santa for his older sister's children while he was in high school and loved playing the role since. Although he says in his blog, "a fake beard was needed at the time." Once his real beard grew in he joined the International Real Bearded Santas group.
Religiously, Mertens was an active Roman Catholic who advocated for women to be able to become priests.
Mertens would have turned 83-years-old next month. He passed away at his home on Friday, January 11. He taught for just over 53 years at St. Cloud State University.