A few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Merry Barton, age five, and her family, who were living in the South Pacific, were forced to evacuate to Australia aboard the Pacific Clipper one of the Pan Am flying boats her father managed. The family returned to the US on a secret, six-week journey aboard the USS President Grant, which meandered across the Pacific to avoid detection from Japanese war ships. She was the last living passenger on the first leg of what became the first round-the world flight on a commercial airliner.
Merry Barton, born Marion Athearn, who died May 23 at the age of 86, had an adventuresome spirit. After spending World War II in Florida, she grew up in Brazil and Peru, remarking that she felt like an international student when she attended college at UCLA. She married her first husband and raised three children. She lived in Tokyo, Boston and eventually settled in Hawaii. Following her divorce she married her second husband, John Barton, and continued living in Hawaii as well as California.
Photo of Merry Barton on her porch in Hawaii
Merry ran a successful travel agency, but it was her family and friends that mattered most. Remembers family member Reverend Brandon Filbert, “Merry always made room for others at the table.” “She was a connector of people, always looking for a common ground,” adds daughter Katy Whitman. “It was her worldliness, her sophistication, her brain power,” says husband John. “She was a spark plug but it was never about her, it was always about you.”
“Each time I had a baby (four), she was right there for two weeks doing anything that needed to be done, no matter where we were--twice in Maryland and twice in Hong Kong,” says daughter Debby Hu. “I was gay and out of the closet at 21,” says son Rick Herb, “My sisters were married and marriage wasn’t an opportunity for me during that era. I think that’s why I was more in need of a close relationship with my mom, and I was very open with her. Not only was she accepting of me but embraced having a gay son.”
Merry was also known for her large family reunions, inviting her ex-husband and father of her children, his wife, including all who were related and their boyfriends or girlfriends. At one of her gatherings, Merry announced that she had cancer. She spent a year fighting the disease until doctors told her the treatments were not working. She surrounded herself with family and friends holding on so she could say goodbye to everyone on her list.
Nephew, Lloyd Athearn says, “Growing up abroad and in an aviation family, Aunt Merry learned the importance of maintaining connections no matter how great the distance. Her ties spanned oceans and cultures with everyone feeling understood and loved.”
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