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Coast Guard Academy club being dedicated to Cdr. Merle J. Smith

New London — The Cdr. Merle J. Smith Consolidated Club at the Coast Guard Academy is finally getting its in-person dedication Friday, nearly a year and a half after the announcement that the Military Officers Club was being renamed after the first Black graduate of the academy.

Superintendent Rear Adm. William G. Kelly virtually dedicated the club in April 2020, but a ceremony at the club was put off due to the coronavirus pandemic. Smith died this past June at age 76.

"I am so incredibly grateful to the Coast Guard and to the Coast Guard Academy for this wonderful, wonderful recognition of Merle and his achievements," his wife, Lynda Smith, said this week.

Merle Smith graduated in the Class of 1966, commanded patrol boats, earned a Bronze Star and got a law degree before returning to the academy in 1975 to teach law classes.

Lynda Smith recalled that, at that time, Friday night happy hour at the Officers Club was where they always ended the week.

"Even though Merle was a junior officer, a lieutenant, it didn't matter. Everybody, all the way up to the admiral, at the Officers Club was so accepting and friendly and welcoming," she said. She said over the years, they continued going to the club for dinners, dances and community events.

Her husband went on to work as general counsel at Electric Boat, and his retirement party was held at the Officers Club. She said they last were there for a holiday dinner dance in December 2019.

Kelly recalled in his virtual dedication that he met the Smiths for the first time last year, and they talked about opportunities at the academy to honor Merle Smith's legacy.

Lynda Smith said when the idea of renaming the Officers Club after her husband came up, "Merle just got an amazing, wonderful smile on his face and said, 'Yeah, I think that sounds like a good idea. I'd be honored.'"

Aram deKoven, chief diversity officer at the academy, said the academy had long sought a new name for the Officers Club to make it more inclusive, in recognition of members of the academy community beyond officers.

DeKoven said Smith "is a Coast Guard hero, he's a Coast Guard Academy legend, and he's a really well-known person in the community, so it made perfect sense to us, that this would be the perfect individual."

He said the Class of 1966 is hosting its reunion dinner at the Cdr. Merle J. Smith Consolidated Club on Friday, and part of that dinner will include the official naming ceremony. The event is not open to the public. He said Lynda Smith, Kelly and Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl L. Schultz will all be speaking.

Last June, Kelly read a letter from Smith's classmates.

"We arrived with trepidation and concern, not sure about what lays ahead of us," they wrote. "You must have felt the heightened sense of concern, or even fear, as a young African-American male entering a military institution where no one of your race or ethnicity had ever successfully completed the four years required to become a commissioned Coast Guard officer."

They said other officers remembered his "steady and unflappable demeanor" serving on Coast Guard cutters, and that he "became a beacon of inspiration within the academy community, encouraging others to strive for the unimaginable and forge new paths of greatness in the face of adversity and uncertainty."

e.moser@theday.com

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