A tribute to Joe Merli. His friends finish the grill he made for Jay Leno and deliver it to California

— Photo from Ginny Stewart

On its way: Friends of the late Joe Merli load the grill he made into Bill Clough’s trailer for its trip to comedian Jay Leno in Burbank, California.

— Photo from Ginny Stewart

Thumbs up: Jay Leno holds a framed picture of Joe Merli as he stands in his garage next to the grill Merli made for him. After Merli died, his friends completed the project — a gas grill shaped like a steam traction engine — and delivered it to Leno in California last month.

To the Editor:

And so the famous grill makes it’s long journey home.

Joe Merli was a man of many talents; there was nothing he couldn’t do with his hands. One person is about to find this out. His name is Jay Leno.

Joe perhaps may have been Jay’s biggest fan for years. I’m certain Jay never realized this, but he is about to find out.

The story goes like this: While working in his shop for many years, being the night owl that he was, Joe would always tune into the late-night show of comedian Jay Leno. He rarely missed an episode.

Joe, being a collector and lover of just about anything old, certainly clicked with Jay on that level. Joe was also one to tell a few jokes, and always had many stories to tell; you might say they both had the “gift of gab.”

One night while Joe was working in his shop, his good buddy Dan Stewart stopped by. While chewing the fat, and talking about projects that they both were working on, Joe asked Dan if he could borrow his smoker grill — a grill that has a large fire pit with a smoke stack.

The grill got lent, and Joe’s wheels started spinning in his head! Immediately, Joe had visions of making a steam engine to resemble Dan’s smoker grill. In fact, he wanted it to resemble a steam engine he knew Jay Leno had among his collection of old things.

And so, the project began, only this time, the project was for the one and only Jay Leno. Drawings were sketched and, before you know it, the smoker grill was coming to life to resemble a steam engine that sits in the Jay Leno’s garage in Burbank, California.

Joe finally met the man he admired, laughed with, and loved when Jay came to Proctors in Schenectady for a one-night show.This was a dream come true for Joe. Joe and his companion and soulmate for more than three decades, Marilyn Miles, and a bunch of friends were lucky enough to go backstage, and visit with Jay.

It was then Joe told Jay what he had been working on for his garage, his very own steam engine cooker grill. Needless to say, Jay was humbled by a total stranger with the talented hands and generosity of Joe Merli. This total stranger was about to become Jay's friend.

After a few years of working on this project. Joe fell ill with cancer. This illness prevented him from finishing the grill. Joe passed away on Feb. 13, 2016 and good friends Pat Payst and Dan Stewart stepped in and made sure the grill got completed, with the instructions they both were given by Joe, knowing he couldn’t finish it himself.

They worked countless hours making sure the grill was completed the “Joe way” as they knew how important this project had been to Joe.Thank you Pat and Dan for your hard work, I know Joe is proud of your accomplishment.

You both had the unique bond of friendship with Joe, a bond that can’t be broken, only missed. A thank-you goes to Powder Tech for powder coating and to Dave Davies for pinstriping the grill.

Other people in the community also lent a hand or their talents to see it finished, and for this a huge thank-you to you all. You know who you are!

The grill is completed and it’s a masterpiece! I can just taste the burgers and hot dogs that will be sizzling.

Now the grill needed a ride to Jay’s garage. Bill and Betty Clough, who are good friends of Dan, saw to it that the grill made its way home to Burbank, California, by Betty saying, “Dan, you tell Joe, Bill and I will make sure the grill gets delivered to Jay's garage.”

Hearing these words put Joe’s mind at ease as he was battling his illness. Thanks, Bill and Betty, for keeping your promise to Joe. Thank you for traveling close to 3,000 miles across our country with the famous grill in your enclosed trailer. What great friends you are.

On the evening of July 6, Bill, his trailer, and some friends gathered at the shop to see the grill off. But not before having two of Joe’s favorites: ice cream topped with Bailey’s Irish Cream. We raised our cups of ice cream and Marilyn toasted Joe. We ended the evening by seeing the grill roll out for its final journey home. Safe travels, Bill and Betty, see you at Jay’s garage.

And that we did. On July 28, the grill arrived at the garage. Dan, Pat, Kevin and myself flew in to meet them, and together we all presented Jay with the gift of the grill on behalf of Joe and Marilyn. After Jay was done admiring the grill, and thanking us all for our acts of kindness, we sat down to the kitchen table in his garage and enjoyed steaks that had been grilled up for us, and corn on the cob.

What a thrill it was to eat with Jay as he made us feel right at home. Afterward, we were fortunate to get the tour of his beloved garage by the one and only and see, up close and personal, his fine collection of cars, bikes, and steam engines —  you name it, he’s got it. And what a collection it is!

I, for one, came away feeling we had forged a friendship with Jay, and for that 1give thanks to Joe Merli. What an experience, one that I know won’t be forgotten.

A very special thank-you goes to Marilyn, for always having Joe’s back; living life with Joe'’ adventures, and there were many; being his rock when life threw him the unexpected; being behind him while his wheels were spinning; sitting at the ‘think bench’ at the shop late into the night; and fine-tuning his projects, while listening to Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show.”

You forever will remain Joe’s “dearest Marilyn.”

Ginny Stewart


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