Kenneth J. Merkel Papers, 1964-1974


Conservative Republican state legislator and electrical engineer Kenneth John Merkel was born in Marshfield, Wisconsin, on August 9, 1926. He attended St. John's Academy and local public schools. During World War II he served in the Army Air Corps. Education for his career as an engineer began at Michigan State College, but in June 1946 he enrolled at Marquette University where he received his B.S. in 1949. From the mid-1950's to the early 1960's he did graduate work in electrical engineering first at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and later at UW-Milwaukee.

In 1964 when Merkel made his first attempt at elective office he was an engineer working for a tool-making company in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Then, as throughout his public career, he regarded politics only as an avocation. In 1959 he joined the Republican Party; in 1963 he aligned himself with the far right wing of the party by joining the John Birch Society. His decision to run for the Assembly in the following year was based on the belief that his views were inadequately represented in the Legislature.

Merkel's legislative record was characterized by advocacy of conservative causes. On many issues such as abortion, sex education, and anti-war disruptions at the University, his views differed little from the more moderate members of his party. He was, however, able to win only little support from them for the Birch-supported legislation which he introduced such as the Liberty Amendment and condemnation of the United Nations. Merkel was widely identified in the press as a member of the Birch Society and the Americans for Constitutional Action and that public association no doubt had much to do with the manner in which his efforts were received by other legislators at the beginning of his career. Merkel's style, however, was not that of the ideological crusader frequently identified with the far right, and he came to be well known among other legislators for his sense of humor and his hard work.

In 1967 Merkel was appointed to the Joint Committee on Finance, a position which showcased his fiscal conservatism and his belief that state government had usurpedt too much power. Reappointed in 1969, he became one of the most influential members of that powerful committee. A favorite slogan of liberals during that session was proclaimed on the bumper sticker “Shame on Shabaz and Merkel, too.” Merkel was not reappointed to the committee in 1971, although he served again during the 1973 session. Other committees on which he served are indicated in biennial editions of the Blue Book.

In 1974 Merkel announced that he would not seek reelection. His decision received statewide attention because it was based on the belief that the recent salary increase received by legislators was too great and that the increase threatened the independence of the citizen-legislator. Unlike many of his contemporaries who regarded serving in the Legislature as a full time occupation, Merkel had continued to work halftime as an engineer throughout his service in the Legislature.

Merkel is married and the father of five children. He is a member of the American Legion, the Knights of Columbus, and the Holy Name Society. His professional associations include the Wisconsin Society of Professional Engineers, the Registered Professional Engineers, and the National Machine Tool Builders Electrical Standards Committee.