Jackson Chamber coping with loss of director

Monday, July 7, 2008

Nearly three months after the death of close friend and boss Marybeth Williams, Jackson Chamber of Commerce executive assistant Cheryl Merkler admits some mornings in the office still seem lonely.

Since the Chamber executive director died from pneumonia April 27, Merkler has assumed Williams' day-to-day roles. Debbie Brown is the temporary assistant.

Though her seven years of experience at the chamber equipped her with the necessary tools to handle the job, Merkler said filling Williams' shoes has been a difficult task.

"This has forced me to come out of my comfort zone," Merkler said. "Her death took an emotional toll on me, since the two of us were good friends and co-workers.

"Even though I can handle the job, it was hard taking over for her," she said. "There has been a big gap left ever since."

Thomas Ludwig, secretary-treasurer for the Chamber's board of trustees, echoed the thought.

"Marybeth's death left a terrible gap," he said. "But the staff that has remained has done a very good job of keeping everything together.

"One key point to understand is that Marybeth was more than a director," Ludwig said. "She was essentially Jackson. While Cheryl can't fill that void that was left when Marybeth died, she has done more to keep her head above water."

Merkler credited a support system of friends and 400 members of the Chamber for helping her cope with the crisis.

"When things seemed overwhelming at times, I knew that I could call on folks in Jackson," she said. "I was so fortunate to have such an amazing support group to help me through this ordeal."

While they are still grieving the loss of Williams, Merkler and the community are turning their attention to the executive director search process. The cut-off date for resumes is July 20.

Job responsibilities include retention and recruitment of chamber members, fiscal accountability, community and economic development, and community advocacy, Merkler said. She said that the candidate must possess a bachelor's degree.

Merkler said she is thinking "quite a lot" about applying for the position.

"I'm excited but a bit apprehensive about the new hire," Merkler said. "I know that I work well with others and have no doubt I can continue a good rapport with the new executive director."

Ludwig said the task of choosing a new executive director is something he never dreamed he would do when he began serving as a trustee two years ago. He said a perfect example of their choice would be John Mehner, president and chief executive officer of the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce.

"John is like Marybeth," Ludwig said. "He not just a good executive director but also represents Cape Girardeau down to its core. When the board makes our decision to hire the executive director, we'll hope this person leads us down the same road that John has and Marybeth did.

"That superstar could just jump out of all the resumes that will be submitted," he said. "But it's very difficult to predict if that will happen. This is a tough task, but someone has to make the decision."

Other projects

But the executive director search is just one of many projects keeping Chamber members busy.

The Chamber's first class of Leadership Jackson began January 30. Similar to Cape Girardeau's program, Leadership Jackson is a series of eight monthly, one-day sessions designed to enhance leadership skills and deepen the knowledge and challenges facing the town.

An inaugural class of 20 has met in various locations throughout town, where they have participated in field trips, panel discussions and presentations. Topics include the state of Jackson, regional economic development, challenges facing rural Missouri and influencing the community.

Its next session will be the annual Chamber Agri-Business Tour of the area, scheduled for July 30. Started in 1979 and open to the public, the event is believed to be the longest-running such tour in the state.

"We are very excited about what the future holds for Leadership Jackson," Merkler said. "Marybeth Williams would have been proud of the success we've had so far with this program."

One of Williams' beloved events was the Jackson Homecomers Festival. This year's festival -- the 100th -- will be dedicated to Williams. It runs from July 22 to 26.

Merkler said the beauty pageant was a favorite of the former executive director's, making the event more special this year.

"She loved this city and celebration just about as much as anyone I know," Merkler said. "So it made sense to dedicate Homecomers to her."

Reminiscing on the experience, Merkler said the three-month ordeal has taught her valuable lessons that she will benefit her both personally and professionally.

"I have learned that the skills that I have obtained throughout the years have been put to even better use in the last few weeks," Merkler said. "I have also learned that we have even more caring supportive members in our Chamber than I had ever thought. And on a personal level the circumstances have made me realize even more how short our life can be and we need to live every day to the fullest."

bblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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