The boys in the fraternity call the plucky woman with white hair “Mom” Mertz, as in “Mom Mertz, may I be excused?” or “Mom Mertz, are you going to the football game this weekend?”
Or “Mom Mertz, lunch is ready. Can I escort you?”
At which point, one of the 62 young men who live in the FarmHouse fraternity at Kansas State University will, in gentlemanly fashion, take the arm of the lady who two weeks ago took on her latest job as the fraternity’s new housemother, and usher her toward the dining room.
“Every job I’ve interviewed for,” she said last week, “I’ve always received. Kind of a stroke of luck.”
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What no one in the fraternity would be impolite enough to ask is, “Mom Mertz, exactly what is your age?”
Even if one did, Maybelle Mertz would dodge the question with a sly grin — “Oh, I’m 104,” she’s joked in the past, or softly chided in her Kansas country lilt, “It’s not polite to ask a lady her age” — even though it’s safe to presume that Mom Mertz just might be the most senior new hire of any fraternity or sorority in the country.
“I’ll be glad to tell you my age, but it would have to be off the record,” she whispered to a visitor, even though the fraternity members pretty much know.
And Mertz knows they know. After hiring her, fraternity leaders needed to see her driver’s license so they could arrange direct deposit of her new paycheck.
She drew near and whispered again, “On February 6th, a few months from now, I’ll be…”
Suffice it to say that Mertz (born Maybelle Spencer) came into the world in Fort Scott, Kan., around the time Amelia Earhart took her first flying lesson. Warren G. Harding was entering the White House. The Great Depression was still a ways off.
The fraternity could hardly care less. It had interviewed a number of candidates.
“If you look at her, you wouldn’t have any idea how old she is,” said the fraternity’s vice president, Asher Gilliland, 22, a senior who also has the role of “house mom liaison.” “She has a really good sense of humor. … At the same time, she’s not afraid to kind of tell you how she feels if you’re doing something wrong.”
Said FarmHouse President Austin Krug, 21, “Age is just a number. … She is super active.”
Which is exactly how Mom Mertz likes to be seen. Vanity is not the reason, as some might suspect, or at least not completely so.
“The main purpose” of keeping her exact age hush-hush, she said, “is I want to keep working. Some people have a barrier to age.”
So last spring, when Mertz drove the nearly 200 miles from her home in Fort Scott to Manhattan in her late-model Cadillac to interview for the FarmHouse position, she simply wanted the young men to judge her for who she was. A senior citizen, yes, no doubt. Her crown of white hair gives that much away. Many house moms, charged with keeping a general watch over the young men and women in fraternities and sororities, teaching them manners, being a sounding board and the like, tend to be older.
“This is an older lady kind of a job,” Mertz acknowledged.
But Mertz is also the kind of senior who could easily be thought to be 20 years or more younger than she is. Sturdy walk, straight back, dressed impeccably in slacks and tailored tunics with fashionable rectangular glasses, she has no quaver in her voice. No cane. No walker. She still golfs. In her prime, she shot around 80. If she had a steady partner, she’d be playing more.
“I’ve learned more about golf in the last two weeks than the whole rest of my life,” junior Cody Holliday said, laughing.
It’s not that she has to do it. In another whisper, Mom Mertz revealed her net worth, containing many zeroes. “Most of it is in land,” she said, meaning the 2,000-acre cattle ranch near Fort Scott that she and her late husband, Jim Mertz, owned, but which she primarily ran, riding horseback. Her son now operates the ranch.
Certainly, Mertz’s late-life resumé is fitting to a fraternity house.
Before coming to live at FarmHouse, she had been a live-in housemother, also known as a house director, for three sororities, staying three years at Alpha Delta Pi sorority at the University of Kansas, three more at the Phi Mu house at Baker University and another year, as interim housemother, at the Kappa Alpha Theta house at Kansas State.
“Here is the thing with her,” said Mertz’s daughter, Melessa Demo of Independence, a counselor at Fort Osage High School who, in family fashion, also kept her age to herself. “She believes that as long as you’re working, you’re busy, you’re using your mind, you keep sharp. When you sit and do nothing is when you dull. She’s young at heart.”
Mertz took on the sororities and now the fraternity, she said, because “I like challenges. If I get interested in something, I’ve got to learn to do it, whatever it takes.”
Also, she said, because “I don’t associate with old people,” meaning she doesn’t relate to them.
“I’ve associated all my life with young people,” she said. “I think that’s part of my longevity. They’re active. They’re young. They’re not talking about this surgery or that surgery or what the doctor said the other day. I just can’t tolerate that.”
But before her role as Mom Mertz, she had a lifetime of jobs, wrought from a steady work ethic that Mertz said is patterned directly from Alice Hayworth, her grandmother. Hayworth raised Mertz, along with her now late older brother and late younger brother, during the dirt-poor days of the Depression after her own father died in his 40s and her mother fell ill.
“She was my idol,” Mertz said of Hayworth, who arrived in Bourbon County as young girl from England, and who would ride sidesaddle, sometimes in thigh-deep snow, to sell eggs and milk to neighboring farmers.
After high school, Mertz began work as a bookkeeper at Montgomery Ward in Fort Scott. Pay: $12 a week. From there, she would go on to work five and a half days a week at The Vogue, a women’s clothing shop in town with fashions from New York.
“It was famous everywhere,” Mertz recalled. “Governors’ wives would come and get their inaugural gowns.”
She and her husband, Jim Mertz (who died of cancer in 1982; they were married for 36 years) ran and owned the Arctic Ice & Feed Co. in town. Maybelle Mertz, meantime, not only worked at The Vogue, but also worked the cattle on their 2,000-acre ranch outside of town, along with their growing stable of American saddlebreds.
“At one time, we had 68 head,” she said. “Yes, it got serious.”
She would help begin the county’s gaited horse show and be named to the board of the directors of the Kansas Saddle Horse Association. She recalled riding in one parade on a horse outfitted with a saddle and bridle laden with silver. Her own suit was a glittering outfit of blue sequins, white gloves and red boots and red hat from Lubbock, Texas.
When The Vogue closed, she opened her own tax business, beginning in a chicken coop in the backyard but eventually moving into town and taking on 1,200 clients. Mertz sold the business around the time she was appointed by then-Gov. Mike Hayden to the Kansas Board of Tax Appeals.
“That was my pride and joy,” she said. On spring breaks, she still does taxes for a handful of former clients.
For Mom Mertz, who now has multiple grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren, her new fraternity duties may be one of the cushiest jobs she’s ever held, as the duties are rather light.
“We don’t really ask a lot from our housemothers,” said Krug, the FarmHouse president.
The boys cook some meals (they also have a chef) and clean their own home. FarmHouse is far from the stereotypical fraternity, with its members tending more toward Bible study than raging beer bashes. The fraternity house, in fact, is dry. Parties are held off campus.
The previous house mom, who decided to leave after nearly eight years, would on occasion mend members’ jeans and shirts.
Mom Mertz already knows that’s not her forté. Her focus, she said, will be “etiquette, etiquette, etiquette.” Last week she organized a class on proper table manners for new members.
“She is pretty prim and proper,” Holliday said. “So she’ll make sure we behave ourselves.”
That may hardly be a tough task. As soon as Mom Mertz stood at lunch, the entire fraternity stood in unison, just as they do each time she enters or leaves a room.
Nice work if you can get it.