In the annals of Cass County government, no one has ever served as county council president longer than a man from Walton who passed away last week.
Merlyn Raikes was the first candidate from either party to serve five four-year terms on the council. Most of the time he spent leading the council. Unlike many of those who served before, during and after him, Merlyn left on his own terms from a job that does not have term limits. His council tenure locally has only been surpassed by one person, Dan Kitchel, who served a portion of a term longer than his own five elected terms.
What Raikes brought to county government was a name associated with magic, even though it wasn’t spelled the same as the magician of far greater legend than his own. What he did bring to the oblong council table when he served was the wit and wisdom of a salesman, a father, a husband, a grandfather and a rural Cass County resident who knew what it was like to participate in what were once known as congenial clubs. In times when rural areas had more schools but fewer activities, congenial clubs were gatherings for young people, and to some extent, even coming out parties for people who spent much of their time either working or living on a farm with their families.
While Merlyn wasn’t a farmer, he never gave up his connection with the Walton area and the people surrounding it. He and his wife Ruby could be seen at Lewis Cass basketball games. He frequently bragged about her apple pies, and almost genuflected to her when she arrived annually at county budget hearings with a freshly-baked, latticed masterpiece. That was often the highlight of six-hour budget hearings that burned the midnight oil to midnight and often produced some hurt feelings, mad county emplolyees and perplexed local officials who sought fairness and equity in the funding process.
In his later years in particular, Merlyn didn’t always vote with the majority. He strove to have open government and rarely spoke with anything but the utmost respect of the people who came before him and worked on behalf of the county.
More than anything, he became a public official who had a conscience he didn’t always show, but one he was prepared to stand by, regardless of the consequences. One of the things I’ll never forget about him is a time when county pay increases were awarded to all but one employee in the Cass County Government Building. When it was pointed out that only one employee would not benefit from a raise, he tried to rectify the inequity. The council wouldn’t go along with him, but in a matter of days, he had hired the county employee to do some work for him to make up the difference for the employee’s loss of additional income.
Most public officials, regardless of party affiliation, would probably be ought of sight and out of mind on this issue, but that wasn’t Merlyn.
His trademark wit was never ceasing. Anyone who knew him couldn’t help but be a target of it, myself included. On one occasion after I suffered a black eye in a basketball game, I showed up at a council meeting, only to have Merlyn stare at me and pretend to wipe away a tear from his eye as if he thought I’d been crying. It was a gesture he repeated for years every time he saw me.
He was a Republican, but he extended his political good will to Democrats. He even purchased a car from one of his former Democrat council colleagues, Charlie Kinsey.
While council members were elected and defeated during his tenure and Merlyn probably could have served another one or two terms on the council had he chosen to do so, he left thinking he had served the county as best he could, with no burning issues on the horizon to hold him there. He never sought to be the Strom Thurmond of the council. He just wanted to serve.
Unlike many council members, he often did his homework, asking questions days or weeks before a meeting so he could find out the answers he wanted to know instead of relying on a sheet of paper and a line item request. That didn’t always make him popular,but it did make him better prepared than several council members who often didn’t appear in the courthouse for any reason other than attending their meeting or picking up their paycheck.
Cass County’s Merlyn didn’t allow anyone to pull a sword out of a stone, but he didn’t wield a sword to swagger his authority either. He was a solid rock, albeit a diminuitive one who was always the shortest member of the council.
To those who long for a time when government at all levels was less divisive and more about community than self-aggrandizement, Merlyn Raikes was a testament to the notion that nice people do finish first. One did it five times.
Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.