William Fewell "Toby" Merchant III, 63, a pharmacist and nationally known lecturer and consultant on pain management and chronic illness, died May 21 at Fauquier Hospital of complications from thyroid surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Merchant purchased The Plains Pharmacy in 1967 and turned the three-person operation into a full-service pharmacy and medical supply company with more than 60 employees serving the entire Northern Virginia area.
Washington Post sports writer Leonard Shapiro gave the eulogy at Merchant's funeral Wednesday at Grace Episcopal Church in The Plains:
Toby Merchant was the purest perfectly awful golfer I ever saw.
He also had one of the most wicked spin drop shots I've ever seen on a tennis court, and he loved to give you a devilish grin and yell, "Gotcha" when he did.
And he hated the Dallas Cowboys.
Those are about the worst things I can possibly say about my very best friend, Toby Merchant, a magnificent man, husband, father, father-in-law, grandfather, sibling and pal any of us could ever hope to know. . . .
I've had the great good fortune to be one of those pals over a good part of the last 25 years. We live at the opposite end of the Frogtown/Rockhill Mill Road, and we came at each other through the opposite side of the academic and philosophical tracks -- me the New York Jewish, liberal sportswriter who never met a chemistry class he could pass or a checkbook he could balance.
And Toby, a Virginia-born and -bred good old boy Republican whose knowledge of pharmacy and medicine, combined with an astute business acumen, allowed him to not only survive against the encroaching and so impersonal Walgreens and CVSs of the mega-drugstore world but also to thrive.
They have an election every few years in this town, but we all know who the real mayor of The Plains was. You could find Toby virtually every day at the drugstore, where he was a white-coated master of his own universe and a man whose true calling was in helping the sick and infirm. It didn't matter if they were a senator or a Redskins owner, a stable hand or a clerk at the country store, or even a sick cat or a lame horse.
Toby treated everyone about the same -- with a warm handshake, a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face. You didn't need a newspaper to live in The Plains or the surrounding area because virtually every vital piece of information -- and yes, an occasional bit of harmless and always anonymous gossip -- was available over the course of a two-minute conversation with Toby, or "Doc," as so many of his true patients often called him.
Toby came to The Plains in 1967, after a horrendous fire following a train collision had literally consumed this town. He was fresh out of pharmacy school and working in a Manassas drugstore when he heard through a friend that the family that owned the place wanted out of the business. He bought it and immediately made his mark by doing the right thing: ending the whites-only policy at the lunch counter. He also played a crucial role in restoring this lovely old town to its current condition, a tiny jewel in the Virginia countryside Toby loved so much.
Toby always did the right thing or had the right suggestion. If he thought a doctor had prescribed the wrong drug, he'd pick up the telephone and tell them what the patient probably really should be taking. If your infant child wouldn't stop wailing in the middle of the night, Toby could prescribe the proper remedy, folk or pharmaceutical. If your back was aching or your knee was throbbing, Doc Merchant had compounded his own soothing cure-all in his laboratory to provide almost instant, and even long-term, relief. My father-in-law, the Florida internist, swore by him.
And if some of his less fortunate clientele couldn't afford to pay for it, Toby would carry you until you could. And sometimes if you never did.
He was a medical expert in every sense of the word, sought after to speak around the country on a wide variety of topics, including homeopathic medicine and pain management, among many subjects he knew so well and administered himself with such a compassionate touch, especially with terminally ill and hospice patients whose lives he made bearable up to the very end.
Personally, he was also a miracle of modern medicine. In his thirties, he somehow managed to survive a horrible head-on collision. In his forties, he very nearly died in the hospital from a ruptured appendix that he always liked to say he diagnosed before his doctors did. In his fifties, he had surgery to remove a brain tumor. We all thanked God that it was benign, even if Toby initially found it difficult to say the word "cow" when he saw one in the field. But the man somehow literally willed himself back to good health, and even back to work, where his steel-trap mind in his chosen profession never faltered.
Toby loved his music. He was a founding member of the Goose Creek Jass and Ragtime Society, which started out holding a modest, little soiree in the early 1970s and grew into a mega-event with 1,200 revelers last year and several live jazz bands and singers performing under the September stars. Toby, of course, was in charge of the food.
Toby was a huge sports fan and dearly loved following the Redskins and Orioles. For many years, he came with me to the Super Bowl. Sometimes Barbara [his wife] and my wife, Vicky, would come with us -- somehow they never made it to Minneapolis -- and then we'd go off together on some truly memorable vacations.
Occasionally during Super Bowl week, Toby would bunk with me. One year, I had promised my twin brothers they could stay with us -- yeah, that was Minneapolis -- and bring their 12-year-old sons. My daughter was there, and Toby came, too, and I believe we still hold the all-time Super Bowl record for number of bodies in a single Marriott room. Another year, Fewell [one of Merchant's sons] joined the boys-only fun. Just to let you know a little family secret, Toby also was a world-class snorer, and one morning, I was about to take an early shower when I opened the curtain and found Fewell fast asleep in the bathtub, just to get a little peace and quiet from his old man hacking wood out in the bedroom.
Toby loved those Super Bowl parties, the Friday night before the game. The commissioner and his closest 4,000 friends were invited, and I'd usually wangle an extra invitation. It was typical NFL wretched excess all the way, and we both usually ate and drank our way through 15 different buffet lines and open bars. I only saw Toby double take twice over the years -- once at the world's largest mountain of paella either one of us had ever seen, at a Tampa Bay party, and another year when he just had to have his picture taken with a Carmen Miranda type whose head full of fruit would have put both Carmen Miranda and his friend Willard Scott to shame.
Toby and Barbara always spent a few weeks every summer at the beach in Duck at the Outer Banks with several of their longtime friends. Toby, as many of you know, always fancied himself a fine cook, and Fred Spencer told me the other day that every year, he came armed to the house they all shared with a bunch of new recipes off the Internet. . . .
"We really appreciated Toby doing the cooking," Fred told me. "But we were not always sure what we were eating."
This much we can be sure of. His entire family, and especially my dear friend Barbara and his three magnificent children, Fewell, Ben and Evie, otherwise known all her life to Toby as "Precious," were at the center of Toby's existence. He was so proud of all your accomplishments, your husband, wife and girlfriend you brought home and the three toddler grandchildren who also lit up his life. Even more important, he was so very proud of the kind of people all of you had become.
I am so sad to be standing here on a day that should not have come so quickly. But I am also so proud to have been able to call Toby my best friend, a one-of-a-kind guy I truly loved. In closing, I can only say I would describe him with the very same words I wrote for the inscription on my own father's gravestone. Only the name would change. "Toby Merchant, a superb and gentle man."