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Originally published October 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 21, 2005 at 12:12 AM

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Alan Merson tried to make a difference

He was a newly minted Harvard man, his résumé polished by a law degree and a stint in the Navy. The world was his oyster. What was a young...

Seattle Times staff reporter

He was a newly minted Harvard man, his résumé polished by a law degree and a stint in the Navy. The world was his oyster.

What was a young man to do?

If you were the Rev. Alan Merson, you bought an airplane, moved to Alaska and opened a mobile legal-aid clinic for impoverished Native Alaskans.

For the Rev. Merson, the law was not a path to wealth but a means of social leveling. When law disappointed the Rev. Merson, he turned to politics. After four failed campaigns, including one for Washington's Supreme Court, the Rev. Merson became a highly regarded Unitarian minister in Washington and British Columbia.

His unconventional life ended abruptly Oct. 4, two months after doctors found 13 cancerous tumors in his brain. He was 71.

"He felt he could make a change in the world," said Nancy Merson, who cared for her ailing ex-husband at her home on Bainbridge Island. "He just wanted to keep trying. He did make a change in the lives he came into contact with. But he did not make the big change he was looking for."

The Rev. Merson was raised in Brooklyn, the son of a self-made business executive who instilled in him a sense of social responsibility to the poor. After leaving Alaska to teach law in Denver, he launched one of the environmental movement's first political campaigns in 1972, defeating Colorado's 24-year incumbent Congressman Wayne Aspinall, a friend of mining and ranching, in the Democratic primary.

The Rev. Merson lost in the general election, but the primary upset got him a job as head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Rocky Mountain region under President Carter. He moved to Washington in 1980 to represent San Juan County's effort to block a trans-Puget Sound oil pipeline. Then he signed on to run a campaign that eventually won federal protection for the 80-mile Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Bowen Blair, who co-directed the campaign, marveled at the Rev. Merson's ability to lobby rural residents opposed to the federal intervention.

"He would immediately charm people because he was curious about what made them tick," said Blair, now a senior vice president for the Trust for Public Lands. "He never met anyone that was not a friend or a potential friend."

He left the Gorge campaign to run for Washington's Supreme Court in 1984. He refused to criticize his opponent while campaigning to relax rules on judicial advocacy.

He was soundly defeated but continued to dabble in politics. He lost two more campaigns — for Congress in New Mexico, in which he limited contributions to $1 and used the slogan of 'A dollar a person elects Alan Merson'; then, in 1994, for Clallam County prosecutor.

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His idealism was not lucrative, Nancy Merson said. "He never made any money at the law because he was always representing the poor or indigent. He was always living on the edge of being poverty-stricken."

Frustrated with politics as a means of change, the Rev. Merson turned to the ministry. He became a Unitarian minister, a conflict-resolution specialist and a volunteer prison chaplain.

He was diagnosed with stomach and bone cancer in 2001. He recovered with radiation treatments and stem-cell therapy, and found a new campaign: health care for the poor.

He walked across Washington state last year to draw attention to the nation's health-care crisis. "I'm doing this because I'm alive," the Rev. Merson told the Daily Record newspaper of Ellensburg. "I'm alive because I have access to doctors and health-care coverage that millions don't have right now in the United States."

In his last two years he moved to Victoria, B.C., hoping that the lower cost of living would enable him to write a book and compose music, which had been a lifelong hobby.

While in Victoria, he preached one Sunday a month at the Capital Unitarian Universalist Church and developed such a following that the congregation on those Sundays swelled by a third, said Amanda Tarling, a lay minister.

He returned to Washington, however, to be closer to his doctors. His sudden deterioration prevented him from finishing the book, but Nancy Merson said she is finishing it for him.

At the Rev. Merson's request, no memorial service is planned. In addition to his ex-wife, he is survived by his brother, Jay Merson, of San Diego, and two children, Carrie Merson of Seattle and David Merson of Denver.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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