Born October 30,1919, she was the fifth of six children, to Peter and Eleanor Brady Sundwall, in Fairview, Utah. Her early years there in the Wasatch Range gave Virginia her deep appreciation for nature and open spaces. Always an independent thinker, after graduating in Psychology from Brigham Young University, Virginia set out for Southern California.
While on a Red Cross scholarship for graduate work in Social Work at UC, Berkeley, Virginia was sent to Santa Barbara to assist injured service men. There she met and married Ben Fred Merkel. At the end of the war Ben and Virginia moved to Petaluma to pursue work in the growing dairy industry.
It was there the couple had their four children and started Flying M Ranch on Middle Two Rock Road. While raising the children, helping run the dairy, Virginia started teaching, and renewed her interest in diverse world philosophies, and became an early member of KPFA.
Ben died in 1959, however, leaving Virginia a widow with four children and 200 cows. After selling the dairy the family moved into town, and while teaching, Virginia became involved with Santa Rosa’s Unitarian Fellowship, the fledgling Co-operative grocery store, and started folk dancing at Little Switzerland. These interests shaped her life and motivated her move to Berkeley, where she was hired as Education Assistant for the Berkeley Consumer’s Co-op Stores.
Berkeley in the sixties created many opportunities for Virginia’s inquisitive nature. She became involved in the environmental and peace movements. She loved making friends from around the world and learning about diverse cultures. Virginia traveled to Europe, and Mexico; once driving all four children and a niece, to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for the family to attend the art institute. After a decade in Berkeley, Virginia missed the country, retired early, and returned to Sonoma. Her home where she lived for the next 40 years became her pride and joy. For Virginia, it didn’t get any better than sharing her fruits and vegetables in a dinner on the deck with friends and family.
In her last four decades Virginia worked for Sonoma’s first farmer’s market, creek restoration and other projects with the Ecology Center, and volunteered with FISH. At ninety, Virginia was still a dedicated member of Sonoma’s Peace and Justice group, and occasionally could be seen at the Friday night peace vigils.
Virginia’s authentic simple living, dry wit and deep commitment to her causes will be missed by many. She was the oldest living member of her family; survived by her younger sister, Florence Fairbanks, Bellingham; her children: Jane White, Berkeley; Perry Merkel, Anchorage; Valerie Harrison, Sonoma; Corky Parker, Nordland, WA; & her eight grandchildren: Rebecca White, San Francisco; Sam White, Oakland; Annika Merkel, Anchorage; Matt & Andy Harrison, San Francisco; Tyler, Gus, & Xing Ji Merwin, Seattle.
A celebration of Virginia’s life will take place in late June, at her home. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Heifer, KPFA, or other favorite charities.