AUGUSTA — Lynn Merrill, 61, insists that she’s an “ordinary person.”

Her family members disagree.

“Of course Mom is special,” said Sarah Dyer, the middle of Merrill’s three adult children, on a recent afternoon. “Mom has been an absolute lifesaver.”

Dyer, 39, leaves her home early each morning for her job hosting the morning show at B98.5, a local country radio station. She also has health problems and has left the state for days at a time to be treated. So she and her husband often leave their own kids at Merrill’s home on the east side of Augusta.

Lynn Merrill, of Augusta, received her Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies Saturday from the University of Maine at Augusta. She was the student speaker at the commencement ceremony at the Augusta Civic Center. Since losing her eyesight, Merrill has focused on raising awareness and increasing accessibility. Photo by Elise Klysa

For those reasons alone, Merrill — who has 11 grandkids — is sure to gets lots of love today, which is Mother’s Day.

But it’s a particularly special holiday for Merrill, who never finished a college degree when she was younger and went blind about 23 years ago, forcing her to leave a career in hospital administration.

Even with her impairment, Merrill has found time to take classes at the University of Maine at Augusta over the last five years. She gets around with the help of Libby, an 8-year-old German shepherd, and studies with smartphone and computer apps that read printed text aloud.

On Saturday morning, during a commencement ceremony at the Augusta Civic Center, Merrill graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies and a minor in public administration.

Now Dyer marvels that her mother was able to balance her studies with her grandmotherly duties.

“I’m forever dedicated to my mom; she’s just amazing,” Dyer said. “She takes the kids overnight, all the while going to school, making sure the kids get on the school bus, making sure they have breakfast in the morning. This is stuff she does every day.”

Dyer recalled the time she and her husband came home from one trip and found that Merrill had taught their 8-year-old daughter to ride a bicycle — however haphazardly.

“We’ll never forget that,” Dyer said. “She taught Chloe how to ride a bike and it was just —”

“It was a hot mess,” Merrill said with good humor, finishing her daughter’s thought. “It was all over the place, all over the place.”

“She didn’t even have control over the handle bars,” Dyer continued, “but she learned.”

Lynn Merrill and her guide dog, Libby, walk into the University of Maine at Augusta graduation Saturday in the Augusta Civic Center. Merrill was the student speaker during the ceremony. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Merrill may be modest about her accomplishments, but others have taken notice. She was nominated to deliver the student speech at the University of Maine at Augusta commencement ceremony on Saturday.

Wearing a gown, as well as a mortarboard on her head that matched the one on her dog’s harness, she spoke to hundreds in the audience about the importance of stepping outside one’s comfort zone, recalling the time she hiked Mount Katahdin, after having lost her eyesight.

Still, she brushes off the suggestion that she is exceptional.

“It’s an honor to have been nominated,” Merrill said before her speech, during an interview last week at her home. “But like I said, I’m just an ordinary person. Everyone has a cross to bear.”

Born and raised in Augusta, Merrill graduated from Cony High School in 1974. She began working at an Army hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, while her former husband served in the military. She later returned to Maine and did administrative work at the Togus campus of the VA Maine Healthcare System.

She started losing her eyesight in 1995, for reasons that doctors weren’t able to diagnose. In 2002, she retired.

Along the way, she has had to learn and relearn many tasks: walking with a cane, using special software to hear what’s on a computer screen, putting toothpaste on a toothbrush, navigating an airport, feeding a baby from a spoon.

She mastered those but still wanted to do more.

“I settled into the role of mother for my teenage children and grandmother, because my oldest daughter had children,” she recalled of her early retirement. “And eventually I decided I’m not growing anymore. I need to do more. So I decided to go back to work and go back to school.”

Lynn Merrill, of Augusta, discusses juggling her various roles as a student, mother and grandmother while coping with her blindness as Libby, her guide dog, lies on the floor. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree Saturday from the University of Maine at Augusta. Photo by Elise Klysa

Merrill has become an advocate for the blind, serving as first vice president for the state affiliate of Guide Dog Users, Inc., a national organization, and joining the University of Maine System’s IT accessibility committee, among other efforts.

She returned to school to sharpen that advocacy work and to learn skills that might help her re-enter the job market. She noted that the University of Maine at Augusta excels in serving students from nontraditional backgrounds.

For a while, Merrill was pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in public administration; but at one point, she decided to major in liberal studies and minor in public administration.

To major in the latter, she would have had to complete one class — she can’t remember the subject — that would have been too time-consuming for her with the clunky software she uses to navigate a computer screen.

Merrill demonstrated how that software works on her laptop, opening an email that was then read aloud in a speedy, robotic voice, not unlike the recordings on a Chipmunks Christmas album.

“You develop an ear for it,” she said.

However, she would have a difficult time using the same technology to read the large spreadsheets that are studied in some courses and that might contain millions of numbers.

“At my age, a liberal studies degree with a minor in public administration is just as good as a public administration degree,” she said.

But she hasn’t written off that class entirely.

“I could at some point go back and take it,” she said. “Then I’d have two bachelors.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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