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Published: Sunday, 1/20/2008

Waterville's 'polar bear' was a beloved icon

Herb Mericle, known for his annual ''polar bear'' plunges into the icy Maumee River, died Friday of natural causes in his Waterville home. He was 101.

Perhaps best known as the father of the annual New Year's Day Polar Dip in Waterville, Mr. Mericle also was a Waterville Primary School crossing guard for 27 years.

Mr. Mericle never missed a day as a crossing guard and continued to fill in as a substitute after stepping down in 2004, village Police Chief Bob Selders said in 2006.

Mr. Mericle was admired and respected by family members, said Robert Mericle of Perrysburg, a second cousin.

"Waterville will definitely miss Herb Mericle," said village Mayor Derek Merrin.

Mr. Mericle's last surviving sibling, Moncy Coil, 92, who lived next door to him the last three years, said he was "just a happy-go-lucky guy."

"He liked everybody and talked to everybody," she said. "I think he's a hero to a lot of kids around town."

One of those kids was Mike Hill, who is now 35 and an employee of a property management company.

"The man taught me more about the Maumee River than most people will ever forget," Mr. Hill said. "He was a great man. He taught me so much about the history of Waterville. He's an icon."

The two struck up a friendship when Mr. Hill was in elementary school. Mr. Mericle was his crossing guard.

"He loved the river, he loved nature, and he loved Waterville," Mr. Hill said.

This afternoon, Mr. Hill and a few of Mr. Mericle's other admirers plan to brave this weekend's Arctic blast with a tribute to him: a special dip in the Maumee's chilly water.

Mr. Mericle's last dip was on Jan. 1, 2002. He once said he started wading through the icy Maumee in 1929. In a 2006 interview he said his winter plunge became an annual holiday affair in the late 1930s.

After a newspaper photograph of his icy antics was published in the mid-1930s, a lady named Mary Coil wanted to meet him. They met, and the couple married on Jan. 1, 1936.

"I just started doing it as something to break up the [monotony] of the winter," Mr. Mericle told The Blade for the 2006 article.

"I never considered swimming in the river on New Year's Day to be any kind of an accomplishment."

Born in Grover Hill, Ohio, Mr. Mericle served in the Army from 1943 through 1945.

He was employed by Libbey-Owens-Ford in Rossford for 20 years.

Survivors include his son, David Mericle; daughter, Cindy Cressy, and sister, Moncy Coil.

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