Ike Mercer’s sense of duty made his community a better place
DIXON – Isaac “Ike” Mercer lived his 91 years with such humility that it could be easy to lose sight of the impact he made during the 72 years he spent in the Sauk Valley.
Mercer will be laid to rest today in Dixon’s Oakwood Cemetery – with full military honors. Like every other facet of his life, the Dixon man brushed off his accomplishments as an Army sergeant during the Korean War with “I was just doing my job”. The truth is that Mercer was a hero of highest distinction, receiving the Purple Heart, Bronze Medal and Silver Medal.
The decorated war veteran was included in “Veterans Remember”, an oral history project undertaken by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. His lengthy interview, done in December 2010, makes for compelling reading, and brings color to a life that was lived in such an understated manner.
Mercer was born in Metter, Georgia, but spent much of his childhood in Detroit. He couldn’t wait to escape the segregated South of the 1930s and ’40s. He found the overt racism heartbreaking, making it difficult for him to even go back to visit family once a year. He once stopped to get gas with his wife, and when she wasn’t allowed to use the restroom at the service station, he politely asked them to siphon their gas from his car.
While Mercer loved Detroit, saying that “people were just people there”, the promise of steady work at Northwestern Steel and Wire brought him to Sterling. He was put to work the same day he interviewed.
The 19-year-old Mercer initially struggled to adjust to a small town, missing the bright lights and energy of the “Motor City”. At the time, he was one of only three black workers in a workforce of about 860, but he worked at the mill for 36 years. It would have been easy for Mercer to lay low and stay focused on collecting his good paychecks. Again, he would tell people he was just doing his job at the mill, but history tells a different story.
Mercer saw things in the workplace that again compelled him to come to the aid of others. In his oral history interview, he talks about Mexican workers who were pulled from their machine jobs and put back on sweeping detail so new white workers could have the better jobs.
Mercer would become one of the founders of organized labor at the mill, culminating in the formation of Union Local 63.
In 1947, Mercer’s family settled in Dixon, a town that almost immediately felt like home. He raised his children there with Earline, his wife of 67 years, but he helped raise many other kids along the way.
A good baseball player as a young man, Mercer and his good friend, Delbert Saunders, founded the Al Morrison Baseball League in 1967. It wasn’t long before the league had 57 teams and had become a community staple.
“I wanted the kids to stay off the streets, and they did,” Mercer said. “We wanted to give the kids something to do so they didn’t get in trouble.”
What he didn’t mention was that he often took the kids out after the games for food and fun on his dime. He became an important male role model for countless youngsters, many who would pay it forward by coaching and umpiring.
In 2017, Mercer was one of two founding board members still living when the league held its 50-year anniversary celebration. SVM photographers captured a beaming Mercer as he threw out the first pitch, caught by his son, Steve. In 1994, Ike Mercer Field on Page Drive was dedicated in his honor.
Mercer also took his civic duties seriously, serving on the Lee County Board for nearly 3 decades, the Dixon Public Safety Commission for a quarter-century, and the Dixon Township Board. His can-do attitude left its mark on local government as well.
“Whenever we needed something done, he was always the first to volunteer,” former board President Rick Ketchum told SVM. Mercer gained a reputation as an independent spirit in county government. He took a measured approach to decision-making, carefully weighing both sides of an issue.
Mercer also devoted 25 years of service to the Lee County Council on Aging. He still found time for the VFW, Masons and Kiwanis. In 1990, he was named Dixon’s Citizen of the Year.
There are stories from Mercer’s childhood included in the “Veterans Remember” compilation that make his accomplishments even more amazing. His father was taken from him at a young age under questionable circumstances. Meeting him here, it was difficult to detect the scars left from the oppressive racism he experienced as a young man in the South.
When he came to Dixon, segregation was still evident. There were more blacks in Dixon than other area towns in the late 1940s, but they lived on the southwest side. It would be another decade before blacks were allowed in most of the restaurants or bars in town. In the 1960s, blacks were finally able to move to the north side, where Mercer raised his family.
While Mercer was definitely a trailblazer, he was more advocate than activist. He was driven by a remarkable sense of duty that was never clouded by the ugly hatred he grew up with. He protected and served fellow soldiers, children, workers and anyone else who needed his help.
Mercer always downplayed his accomplishments by saying he was just doing his job. Maybe he truly believed that, but driven by an intense love for family, country and community, his work left a lasting impact on an appreciative community.
Isaac “Ike” Mercer’s visitation will be from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at First United Methodist Church in Dixon. Masonic Rite will be at 1 p.m., followed by a funeral service at the church. Burial will be at Oakwood Cemetery with full military honors.
The family invites everyone to join them back at First United Methodist Church for a repass (luncheon). Memorials are to Second Baptist Church in Dixon and Serenity Hospice and Home in Oregon.
Preston Schilling Funeral Home is handling arrangements. Go to www.prestonschilling.com to send condolences.