BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Ice, high water, a closed park and even a pandemic couldn’t stop a small but shivering group from keeping the New Year’s Day tradition started by the late Waterville legend Herb Mericle.
Chanting “Herbie! Herbie!” the 14 men, three women and three children descended into the fast-moving, 41-degree Maumee River behind Mike Hill’s South River Road home on January 1 in a private polar plunge.
While never sanctioned by Waterville, a public event typically held each year at Memorial Park was derailed yet again. In 2019 and 2020, the public gathered on the Wood County side as the new Waterville Bridge closed the park, and COVID-19 scuttled a large gathering last year. This year, many expected to meet at the park, but the city closed it due to high and fast-moving waters.
Fire Chief Doug Meyer reported on December 30 that the river was running at 33,800 cubic feet per second, which he said could be deadly. By January 1, the current was still strong, so barricades and No Parking signs were erected. By 2:00 p.m., a Waterville police officer was stationed in the parking lot to deter anyone from using the site by the bridge.
It’s not the first time that Hill has held his own polar plunge at home, where the current isn’t as strong next to a small beach that faces Granger Island. Hill said he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to honor Mericle, who lived down the street until he died in 2008 at age 101.
Mericle first took the plunge a few years after marrying Mary Coil on January 1, 1936, at 2:30 p.m. They were married 54 years when she died in 1990. To commemorate their marriage – and remember the anniversary – Herb dipped into the Maumee River at 2:30 p.m. every New Year’s Day until 2002, when he was 95.
Over the years, he coerced neighbors, friends and even students who knew him as a crossing guard at the old Waterville School for 27 years to join the tradition. As the crowds of dippers grew to the hundreds, Herb took an electric scooter to watch the revelry until he passed away.
Bob Scott, of Luckey, has gone for 32 swims in 27 years.
“Sometimes I would go in two times,” Scott said, explaining that for a while the event planners or first responders would push for a 1:00 p.m. swim, but Herbie would insist on a 2:30 p.m. dip, so he would go in twice.
Scott, a retired ironworker, had watched the event on TV for several years with his parents, but it wasn’t until his dad died in 1996 that he decided to follow through and attend.
“I’ve been doing it since then,” said Scott. “I like the camaraderie and the tradition.”
“I’ve been doing this for 28 or 29 years,” Hill said. “When you first dunk under, it takes your breath away, but when you get out the feeling is euphoric.”
For 11-year-old Zoey Hahn of Waterville, this was a first. Wearing a lifejacket over her swimsuit, Zoey was held onto by her parents, Monika and Phillip, as they entered and exited the river quickly.
Asked if she would do it again, Zoey hesitated.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Mike Fincher, of Elmore, who marked his 18th polar plunge, was more optimistic.
“At least we didn’t have to break through the ice this year,” he said.