Frank Merrill says that if the new state-of-the-art athletic field now under construction in East Palo Alto can "keep one kid from joining a gang or becoming a gang-banger or going and shooting someone," then it will be a success.
The Rich May Memorial Field honors East Palo Alto police officer Rich May, gunned down nine years ago, on Jan. 7, 2006, by Alberto Alvarez, a gang member who has been sentenced to death for the killing.
Mr. Merrill, who lives in Atherton with his wife Clarice, Officer May's mother, has spent years leading the effort to raise money and get the permits and permissions necessary to build the field.
Officer May, a Marine veteran who had been a police officer for 16 years, was 38 when he was killed. He had three daughters, and lived with his wife Diana in Santa Maria, but often stayed with his family in Atherton.
While the Rich May Foundation has raised $1.5 million for the field, Mr. Merrill is hoping for another $200,000 to pay for night lighting, as well as $600,000 to serve as an endowment to make sure the field is taken care of in the future.
"It's an opportunity to remember a guy who tried to make a difference," Mr. Merrill says, "to honor a cop for what he did and to remember what a difference he made, both in his professional life and in his non-professional life."
Mr. Merrill, a veterinarian who grew up in Atherton, where his family has lived since 1870, says his stepson was "an extremely dedicated policeman" who also spent hours of his own time helping the East Palo Alto community.
Officer May would often get home hours after his shift had ended, and only after his death did the Merrills find out that he had been volunteering to tutor students or help families in a tight spot, Mr. Merrill says.
At Officer May's memorial, a homeless man said the officer had routinely moved the non-operating car the man had been sleeping in so it wouldn't be towed, and finally found him a permanent parking spot.
"He was a very compassionate guy who was forceful and direct when he needed to be," Mr. Merrill said.
He was also inspirational. Rich May's sister, Amy Merrill, has just graduated from the police academy at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, which Officer May also attended, Mr. Merrill says.
The high school regulation-sized artificial turf field will be suitable for soccer, rugby, football, running and field hockey year-round. With lights it will be open until 9:30 p.m. It will also have a picnic area, bathrooms, storage, an office and dedicated parking.
Menlo Park architect Sam Sinnott designed the field, memorial, gates and entryway at no charge.
Raising the funds for the field has not been the only challenge for Mr. Merrill and the May Foundation. The field, located on two acres off Bay Road, sits mostly on land donated by the Archdiocese of San Francisco, but in order for it to be regulation-sized, it also required land owned by the Ravenswood School District. The agreement negotiated with the district allows the school to use of the field during school hours and on some additional days for special events, Mr. Merrill said.
During the trial of Mr. May's killer, a social psychologist testified in Mr. Alvarez's defense that he had grown up in a community that lacked athletic opportunities.
"I took that as an affront," Mr. Merrill says. "I vowed at that point that I was not going to allow that to be the case any further," he says. "I didn't want this to be an excuse that any kid could use."
Mr. Merrill said he hopes the new field "will be a game changer." It will be, he says, "equal to or better than" the fields that East Palo Alto residents used to have to travel to nearby communities to play on.
Donations can be made through the foundation's website, or by mailing them to 64 Moulton Drive, Atherton, 94027.
The foundation is also seeking sponsors for engraved pavers that will be used at the field's entrance. Order a paver from the website.