Ron Merriman first set foot in Malibu in the 1930s as a child when his parents took him to feed the seals at the Sea Lion restaurant. As a teenager in the 1940s, he rode his motorcycle from Santa Monica up the coast to Malibu to enjoy the scenery. He and his high school buddies loved the open nature at Point Dume so much they camped out on the beach at night with no one to disturb them except the local judge who lived in one of the only houses on the point and kept a watchful eye on the teens (along with his shotgun nearby, Merriman recalled). Now nearing 90 years of age, Merriman sat down for an interview to reminisce about his long teaching career with the Santa Monica-Malibu School District and his long residency on the point.
“We called it ‘Poverty Point,’” Merriman chuckled. “It was a place where a teacher’s salary could buy property in Malibu.” But Merriman still needed a second job—at Vons—to afford his lot on Point Dume; the parcel cost $4,000 in 1954. It took six months to build his home in 1958.
“All we had to do was go to the Marblehead Land Company and show them our plans,” he said. Oceanfront property then was out of reach for most working-class buyers. The Point at the time was so remote and “so windy nobody wanted to be here,” Merriman recalled. The former school principal described that there were no trees in the neighborhood.
“It was pretty bare,” he said. There were few neighbors, too. Luckily, that changed, and now they credit their neighbors for helping to save their home from the Woolsey Fire: “We had no firemen here. Nine men and one woman saved our street.”
In 1953, Malibu joined the Santa Monica School District. Before that, there was a one-room school house in Decker Canyon. High schoolers were bused to Santa Monica.
Merriman started teaching in 1954 in Santa Monica.
“I had fantastic students and they still know me,” he said. He reunites with former students at Samohi’s yearly picnic. After his home was built, he asked for a transfer to Malibu. By 1959, he was teaching at what at the time was called Malibu School (until its name was changed to John L. Webster Elementary).
“We used to take our kids over (to the old courthouse on Pacific Coast Highway) to see Judge Webster working,” Merriman recalled. “They would sit on the back benches to listen to how the jurisprudence would work.”
Merriman then became principal at Juan Cabrillo School. The six-decade Malibu resident described the area in the late ’50s and early ‘60s as a rural “4H” community where students rode their horses to school. “We had a rail to tie them up,” he said. It was much different from when he was a school principal in Santa Monica, where there was often petty crime on campuses. When he got to Cabrillo, he was struck that his students left their lunch money untouched on their desktops.
Merriman recalled the turbulent 1960s, when drug culture became rampant, leading a few parents to leave the district. One of his students, he said, unfortunately, became a follower of Charles Manson although she was never imprisoned.
As a teacher and then principal at Webster, Merriman was also chief rattlesnake killer. There were other threats, too, beside brushfires.
“We were concerned that Russia might bomb us, so we had drills,” he said. Merriman described Webster students joining kids from Our Lady of Malibu School and walking through a tunnel under Malibu Canyon to Hughes Research Lab to practice duck-and-cover.
“We did a lot of things we couldn’t get away with now,” he admitted—like the time a former student’s husband would buzz the school with his plane. Merriman would call his students outside as the small aircraft would make a second pass over Webster and wave its wings to entertain the children.
“We had fantastic parents at Webster when I was there, even as a teacher. They would invite you to their homes for dinners,” he said.
“It was like a family,” Merriman’s wife of 67 years Julie chimed in. “The parents of his students would have us over for dinner. Their children wanted their teacher to come. They were so hospitable—so kind. We’d be invited quite often.”
Merriman retired as Webster’s principal in 1990. Upon hearing of the death of his successor, Phil Cott, he remarked, “Cott was one excellent principal following me.”
Julie and Ron Merriman ended their reminiscence saying, “We love living here. We’re very fortunate.”