They called balls and strikes behind home plate for a combined 52 years, achieving greatness in the world of Major League umpiring until their retirement in 1999.

The pair’s plaque-filled walls in their homes are testimonies to their remarkable professional achievements.

When they stepped up to the plate in retirement, however, their volunteer service to others provided them with the most satisfaction. Who knows what motivated them? The late Durwood Merrill, from Hooks, Texas and Larry Barnett, from Nitro, West Virginia, insisted on “giving back.” Some might think their theme song should be, “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy.” Combined population of their hometowns is less than 10,000….


Merrill, who died in 2003, was consumed by a local charitable event he founded — perhaps by providence — in 1979. He learned of a single mother with three children who faced a barren Christmas. There was no food in the house — let alone presents — when Merrill visited the home on Christmas Eve. He rounded up a Christmas tree, gifts and a bevy of food.

He always claimed this to be the greatest Christmas he’d ever experienced. He added two more families the next Christmas.

The project kept growing, thanks both to Merrill and Hooks merchants and friends who likewise found it more blessed to give than to receive. In subsequent years, teachers identified children with greatest needs. The campaign usually has provided gifts and food for 200 children, and sometimes more. Merrill dug deep into his pockets to fund the project, and wasn’t bashful about digging into others’ pockets, too. Though he died in 2003 at age 65, his Christmas campaign continues….


Merrill wrote an autobiography, 'You’re Out and You’re Ugly, Too.'

I want to read more about this man who — after late deliveries on one Christmas Eve — saw a woman at the side of the road pleading for “anything he might have left from his rounds.” He scrounged around, finding only a few boxes of Jello. It was raining hard, but the woman and her two children were grateful.

“You mean we can have Jello tonight?” the oldest child asked. “This is great, Mama.” (Needless to say, Merrill found some more gifts for the family.)…


Barnett’s “retirement”has been equally gratifying. When he put away his umpiring gear after the 1999 season, he looked forward to staying close to home. He was tired of flying, and sick of hotels. (For umpires, all assignments are “away games.”)

The retired ump remained “hooked” on visiting patients in VA hospitals, as has been his custom — along with umpiring — since 1976. He has made more than 3,200 hospital visits, adding to his travel travails. All told, he umpired for nearly 38 years and has visited vets for 43 years.

Now 74, Barnett is “retiring” from what has become essentially a second career. It should be noted that he is winding up his long association with the Disabled American Veterans’ Association on its 100th anniversary. The DAV Association was created by Congress in 1919….


The “travel travails” referenced a few lines back bring to mind a couple of “travel stories,” one of which happens to be true.

One can’t make up what happened on the Greyhound bus that left Dallas headed for Phoenix the other night. At the Abilene terminal, the driver announced a “20-minute break,” urging promptness, of course. Trouble was, everyone got back on the bus except the driver, who never returned. The 20-minute break became a nine-hour lay-over before Greyhound found another driver. By the time they got to Phoenix, they were weary! (Had this “goof” occurred a few decades earlier, Glen Campbell might have added another verse to this popular song.)

Finally, the old train joke. The conductor, upon delivering a baby, mentioned to the mother that she shouldn’t have boarded the train in such a condition. Her answer? “When I got on this train, I wasn’t in this condition.”…