Donald P. Merrifield dies at 81; former president of Loyola Marymount

Father Merrifield, with students in 1982, helped transform the campus with the construction of 13 buildings and a focus on recruiting minorities.
(File Photo / Los Angeles Times)

Father Donald P. Merrifield, president of Loyola Marymount University during an era of rapid growth for the Catholic school based in Westchester, has died. He was 81.

Merrifield died Thursday at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose from a heart attack, a university spokesman said.

Merrifield became the 11th president of Loyola University in 1969. As the first president of Loyola Marymount after Loyola merged with Marymount College in 1973, the Jesuit priest oversaw a transformation of the campus with construction of 13 buildings and a greater emphasis on enrolling minority students.


“Look at the many, varied faces on our campus and you see the influence of Father Merrifield,” Loyola Marymount’s president, Father Robert B. Lawton, said in a letter to faculty and staff.

In a 1969 Times story announcing his inauguration, Merrifield asked that ceremonies be kept simple and any funds normally used for the event be spent on minority scholarships.

“Father Merrifield was president certainly at a decisive moment in the university’s history,” Father Robert Caro, vice president for mission and ministry, said in an interview with The Times. “One of the great things he did was opening LMU in a very proactive way to previously unrepresented groups.”

Father Joseph LaBrie, a psychology professor at Loyola Marymount, called Merrifield “an incredible thinker” and said the school’s “expansion to the campus that’s so glorious and highly competitive owes its beginnings to him.”

Loyola Marymount has nearly 9,000 undergraduate, graduate and law school students.

Donald Paul Merrifield was born Nov. 14, 1928, in Los Angeles and graduated from Inglewood High School.

He received a bachelor’s degree from Caltech in 1950, a master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1951 and a doctorate from MIT in 1962, all in physics.


He joined the Society of Jesus in 1951 and was ordained in 1965.

Merrifield taught physics at the University of San Francisco and also taught at Santa Clara University and Loyola before becoming president. He was a consultant at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1962 to ’69.

At Loyola, he was also known for his work with the homeless and with the Missionary Brothers of Charity in Los Angeles. “He was equally at home with the rich and the poor,” Caro said.

Merrifield served as Loyola’s chancellor from 1984 to 2002. In a 1983 interview with The Times, he considered his changing role at the university: “Raising funds versus raising fundamental questions. If it was a matter of choice, I’d be a raiser of questions. . . . I think the raising of questions is a strong and prophetic role of the church.”

Since 2008, Merrifield had been living in Los Gatos at an assisted-living facility for older and retired Jesuits.

He is survived by a brother, Peter.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at noon March 9 at the Sacred Heart Chapel on campus.