Former Ohio and Clark County lawmaker Merle Grace Kearns died in a nursing home in Columbus on Saturday. She was 76.
Kearns, a Republican, served as a Clark County commissioner from 1981 to 1990. She was appointed to the Ohio Senate in 1991, serving the 10th District until 2000 where she held the role of majority whip.
Kearns later served in the Ohio House of Representatives from 2001 until 2005, serving as majority floor leader where she represented Clark, Greene and Madison counties.
She then accepted a position as the director of the Ohio Department of Aging under Gov. Bob Taft. She served in that role until 2007.
Former U.S. Rep. Dave Hobson, R-Springfield, called Kearns “a force to be reckoned with” who never forgot about Clark County during her time at the Statehouse.
“Merle was a great county commissioner and also a great state legislator,” Hobson said. “She was a great school teacher, a great mom, a great wife. She just did so many wonderful things, especially a lot of work with seniors and senior health.”
State Rep. Ross McGregor, R-Springfield, followed Kearns in the Ohio House in 2005.
“I’ve always admired her for her ability to put the politics aside and look at the issues and how they impacted the people,” McGregor said. “She was very pragmatic. And she wasn’t afraid to call a ball or a strike … She didn’t dance around an issue. Once she formulated an opinion or position, you could take it to the bank.”
Former Ohio Attorney General and Auditor Betty Montgomery, who served with Kearns as one of three women in the Ohio Senate, described her colleague as a tireless worker, steward of the public trust, compassionate leader and wonderful role model with a great sense of humor.
“She was not a gamer. She did not play political games. She went straight at a problem. You could always rely on her word and that’s gold in the Legislature,” Montgomery said of Kearns.
Kearns was inadvertently dragged into politics. The GOP wanted her to resign her Senate seat early and take a vacant seat in the House in 1999. Even though she was term limited in 2000, Kearns insisted on serving her entire term. Republican Chris Widener was appointed to the House seat and Kearns ran against him and beat him in a GOP primary the next year.
Republican leaders then re-drew the legislative districts – without telling Kearns, who learned about it on vacation when a reporter called her for response. Kearns was stuck in a tough district facing another incumbent. She still managed to win the seat.
Kearns said in a previous interview that her proudest legislative accomplishment was getting a bill signed into law that recognized advanced practice nursing in Ohio – something that she worked on for six years.
A viewing will be held at Conroy Funeral Home, 1660 E. High St., from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday. A private funeral service will be held on Friday.
Memorial donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association, Central Ohio Chapter, 1379 Dublin Road, Columbus, OH 43215.
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