People in your Neighborhood: Meet physician, education advocate Richard Merino of La Jolla

Dr. Richard Merino of La Jolla in his Beach Barber Tract home
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Dr. Richard Merino of La Jolla understands the power of education. As a young student, he was discouraged by his school counselors from applying for college; but then he was encouraged by family to pursue higher levels of learning. As a result, he took his interest in math and science and turned it into a medical career. Now “pushing 80” years old, Dr. Merino has been in the health field since the 1970s.

His daughter, Mitzi Merino, is San Diego Unified School District’s Area 5 Superintendent and works with schools in the La Jolla, San Diego and Madison clusters. She credits her father with being “the reason I’m so passionate about strengthening educational opportunities and outcomes for all kids.”

Sitting down with La Jolla Light, Dr. Merino talked about how education influenced his life.

Where did you grow up?

“I lived down off Market Street, near downtown San Diego. I went to Chollas View Elementary (now Chollas-Mead school) and then Lincoln High, but in those days, it had just been built and was a junior/senior high school, so I was there for six years.

Sadly, my counselor didn’t do anything for me. He didn’t recommend I take AP classes or go to college. In school, I liked math and science and did really well, but was never in any of the advanced classes because your counselor was the one who led you through those things. I felt like I took the same history class for six years. But with the math and science classes, I signed up for those on my own.

After high school, I thought about going to college, but I was married by the time I graduated, so I needed to get to work.”

What did you do?

“At first I worked at the Post Office. My father-in-law was a supervisor for an aircraft company, so we moved to Riverside for a while so I could work there. I learned to be a toolmaker and machinist, but we didn’t like Riverside, so we moved back to San Diego.

My dad was a barber, so I decided to go to barber school. I had a daughter, Michelle, by that point (three years later, Mitzi was born), so I needed to get to work. I was 19 when I got my license and worked part time for a couple of years ... then I opened my own shop within the Parkway Bowling Alley complex when I was 21.

I was working six days a week until I was 26 or 27, and we made a good living. But I thought about going back to school, and maybe becoming a math or science teacher. My oldest brother was an engineer, my next oldest brother was a rocket scientist and my closest brother — only a year-and-a-half older than me — was getting his Ph.D., while I was cutting hair. He came into the shop and said, ‘Why don’t you go back to school and become a doctor?’ He noted that UC San Diego was just opening its medical school and he helped me sign up for classes that would help me get into med school. I went to Grossmont College and worked part-time for a small aircraft company during the day. From there, I went to UCSD and went to medical school.”

Did you have medical aspirations before that?

“No, I thought I would end up being a teacher, but with my science skills, my brother thought being a doctor would be a good fit for me. He reminded me that everything I was taking — and that I liked — could go toward medical school, so I figured if it didn’t work out, I still had a backup plan of being a teacher.”

Was your experience at UCSD better than at high school?

“Yes, I ended up graduating pretty close to the top of my class. (He was one of 48 doctors to graduate that year.) I opened an office in Poway after I graduated; I had a friend who was getting out of traditional medicine and I took over the practice. Then I joined a medical group, where I worked until seven years ago. The plan was for me to retire, but that only lasted six weeks.”

What have you been doing since?

“When I ‘retired,’ I called up Family Health Centers of San Diego and they needed help in Logan Heights. I’m still helping now. I see patients two days a week. It’s a Latino community and they need all the help they can get there, so I find it very gratifying.”

How did you come to live in La Jolla?

“Growing up in San Diego, La Jolla is the place you’d want to live if you could get there. As a kid, I’d take the bus with my brother to come here and fish. We must have been 10 or 11 years old, and you could travel all over San Diego with about a quarter at that time.

We moved here in 1971, while I was going to UCSD. Then, I went to school in Denver for three years, so we lived there; but when we moved back, we lived in La Jolla. We bought a house on Sea Lane for $100,000 and then we decided we wanted to be a little closer to the beach, so we bought this house (in the Beach Barber Tract neighborhood).”

How has La Jolla changed since you’ve been here?

“It used to have more of a Village feel back in the 1970s. You would go to the market and know the cashier or the people in the produce department. A lot of the places that used to be here are gone now, I’m still not used to that.”

What do you think of your daughter Mitzi going into education, since that was your plan?

“We used to tell the girls to study the things they liked and success would come. I didn’t want them to worry about picking a profession, I just wanted them to study what they loved. When Mitzi said she was going into education, I was thrilled and she has been very successful at it. And my daughter Michelle is more like me as a math and science person, so she got into finance and she did quite well. So it was perfect.”

Editor’s Note: La Jolla Light’s “People in Your Neighborhood” series shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about! If you know someone you’d like us to profile, call us at (858) 875-5950 or send the lead via e-mail to