Little-known facts about Orange County’s sheriff-elect

You may have seen Keith Merritt with a dog or two, or traveling the streets of Orange in his blue constable’s car.

You may be one of the thousands of kids who saw him at school giving demonstrations with Ali or Thor, drug-sniffing dogs tough on the job but gentle around children.

Merritt’s office is filled with pictures of them, or figurines representing the late canines.

However, you may not know he married his high school sweetheart, or that this quiet Texan gets out to Las Vegas once a year. Keith and Marlene have been married 39 years and have two boys, Robert and Craig, two grandchildren (with another on the way) and one great-grandchild.

As a constable, Keith says he’s never forgotten where he came from, and doesn’t intend to as sheriff.

“It’s just a different phase of law enforcement,” he says.

Where he came from, he says, was not a particularly happy childhood.

His family didn’t have a lot of money, and was estranged from his father, who moved away from Orange when Keith was young.

He was raised by his mother, Clara “Jo” Merritt and stepfather R.W. “Bob” Merritt.

He was a student at Stark High School when lunch at Zack’s hamburger stand on the corner of Second Street and Cypress Avenue led him to meet Marlene Hennigan, living in Vinton at the time with her folks Inez and Marlin.

“I pulled in to get some burgers, and I didn’t know her name or anything else about her,” Keith says. “I went home and told my mother, ‘I just met the girl I’m going to marry.’ And she asked me, ‘What’s her name?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ But after that I bought a lot of hamburgers at Zack’s.”

After about three or four weeks, he asked her out.

“We were able to go on cheap dates,” Marlene says. “We could get food where I worked, and his mother and stepfather owned the Orange Drive-In so movies didn’t cost a lot. Their house was actually under the screen. I never knew there was a house there. I never made a lot at Zack’s, but after we got married [in 1969] I’d saved up enough to put a down payment on our first car.”

Keith worked briefly at Levingston Shipyard and as a meter-reader for the city of Orange.

In 1970, he was drafted by the Army and served at Fort Polk, Fort Bragg and Fort Benning.

“That was a time when the fighting in Vietnam was being phased out,” he says. “I got orders to go two or three times, but never made it.” He later got his job back with the city, then worked as a shift supervisor at Chevron on Chemical Row.

“They phased out a type of low-density plastic while I was there,” Keith says. “I would have had to take a job at another plant in Houston, and I didn’t want to drive there every day and I didn’t want to live there.”

That’s when he began working as deputy to Constable Jack Thompson. Ali arrived from Europe soon after, and when Thompson retired, Keith ran for the job. Keith says he was inspired to enter the profession by his stepfather, an Orange police office for many years.

“Me and Keith had to learn German to get those dogs to do what we needed them to do, because that’s all they understood,” says Marlene, who worked as director of the Orange Natatorium for five years.

“After that, I took some time off to raise the kids, then worked at Cypress Animal Clinic for 15-and-a-half years,” she says.

These days, the couple is active on the board of the Orange Lions Club. They enjoy fishing, having owned a camp at Toledo Bend at one time. Keith likes golf and in his younger days played a bit of slowpitch softball. Marlene’s brother sells timeshare deals in the Vegas area, where they travel at least once a year. “We enjoy watching all the weird people,” Keith says. But the bright lights of “The Strip” aren’t enough to see a move there.

“We were born and raised in Orange, and would never think of living anywhere else,” Keith says.