Monday, March 9, 2020

In Memoriam: Joyce A. Merriman, Executive Editor, 2005-2020

- Carrie Morantz

Joyce A. Merriman, executive editor of American Family Physician, passed away recently after an 11-month battle with cancer.

Joyce came to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) in January 2005 after spending most of her career with the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses, ultimately as editorial director of their clinical journal. Although we were thrilled she was joining us at AFP, the transition wasn’t an easy one for her. She moved 600 miles to Kansas City while her husband, Bruce, and their three sons stayed behind in Denver to finish the school year. Joyce’s arrival at AFP overlapped with the retirements and departures of four senior-level editors, leaving her to take over a journal that had just lost nearly 70 years of combined editorial experience. I and the rest of the AFP staff half-expected Joyce—missing her family, in a new city, at a new job where she immediately faced such an overwhelming challenge—to throw in the towel and book the next flight back to Denver. Instead, she set about teaching herself start to finish how AFP is produced, forever questioning why we did things the way we did and brainstorming with us about how to improve, not infrequently over margarita-fueled “teambuilding sessions.”

In a column introducing Joyce to our readers soon after she was hired, Bob Edsall, AFP’s editorial director at the time, predicted “enormous tasks ahead” for Joyce, but “great things from AFP” under her leadership. As daunting as that sounded then, in hindsight it was a bit of an understatement. In 2005, the publishing industry was on the brink of a massive change in the way readers use and interact with online media. When Joyce joined AFP, our website was little more than an online archive of articles—and a rather unattractive and difficult-to-navigate one at that. Under Joyce’s direction, it evolved into what it is today: the most trusted online resource for primary care physicians.

Stephanie Hanaway, the AAFP’s Director of Journal Media, described Joyce as “the planner, the super-organizer, the rock that we counted on to hold every little piece together.” Joyce spent her last months ensuring that AFP would transition seamlessly after what she referred to as her “retirement,” delegating tasks from her never-ending to-do list, attending meetings by phone when she was too sick to come into the office, and reviewing manuscripts at home, scrawling notes in the margins with her typically excessive use of exclamation marks.

Dr. Sumi Sexton, AFP’s editor-in-chief, praised Joyce’s thoughtfulness, work ethic, and willingness to go above and beyond to answer questions, calling Joyce her “go-to person for anything and everything at the journal and AAFP.” Dr. Jay Siwek, AFP’s former editor-in-chief and current editor emeritus, called Joyce the best professional editor he’d ever worked with. He added: “Joyce had great dedication to the journal and her staff, and great attention to detail. AFP is definitely better because of her!”

Joyce’s goal throughout her illness was to continue working until her 15th anniversary with AFP, which we celebrated in mid-January. Not much later, we got the news that she was gone.

The job of an editor can be hard to explain to people who aren’t in the publishing industry. What it boils down to is problem solving: We fix things behind the scenes, and if we do our job well, readers shouldn’t notice that we’ve done anything at all. Because of Joyce’s extraordinary problem-solving skills, we’re confident our readers didn’t notice a difference last week when they picked up the March 1 issue of AFP—the first issue that went to press after her passing.

But for those of us who worked closely with Joyce, her absence is acute. We miss seeing the conservative 62-year-old from Minnesota sporting bright purple hair in the days after her first chemo treatment. We miss her indignation at Bruce for letting her water an artificial orchid for weeks before clueing her in. Some of us miss her (extremely outspoken) preferences for Alan Jackson songs, sensible shoes, and dogs vs. cats. But most of all, we miss her toughness, determination, and loyalty.

AFP’s next executive editor will have big—but sensible—shoes to fill.


Carrie Morantz is Senior Associate Editor of AFP.