Talk a while with Merle Diem Jr. and two passions begin to peek out from behind a broad, composed face. Neither ‘earn him a lick’. That living once came from the Macon County Tire and Service and now from a trucking firm. But his two passions cost him dear.
The first is the rush that comes from speed and power at the races. For years he’s competed at tracks around the Southeast. It’s not about the winnings. It’s something about the burning rubber, the blur of the curves, the kick of the wheel, about hot engines revving at limit, the roar of straight pipes and of the crowd in the stands. ’Now,’ he says as he gazes out the window, ‘I’m getting a little old for that stuff. Mostly I’m on the pit crew.’ But the hunger for excitement is in the family genes. His sons, Dustin and Chandler, who now manage the tire shop, are at the wheel on race nights, something they pursue with a father’s blessing – and a touch of envy.
Come Saturday, September 14th, Merle will not be in victory lane or even the track pit. His other great passion will be on display at the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry. This, too, is a passion charged with excitement, but of a very different kind. He’ll be lead auctioneer at the Peach Cobbler Mennonite Relief Auction, something he’s relished doing for its entire 20-year history. While there will not be the acrid smell of rubber, the roar of engines, or a checkered flag, there will be speed as rival bidders pursue single-mindedly the handstitched quilts, the antique furniture and the collectibles. The ricochet of bidding builds with gasps from the crowd as prices ratchet upward followed by bursts of applause when the hammer comes down. All of that begins with the 9 AM ritual auction of a classic peach cobbler to launch the event, a much-anticipated moment that sometimes attracts bids, for love of the cause, as high as $1000.
Merle’s passion for auction goes back to a time when he was a youngster at his grandmother’s estate sale in Pennsylvania. He stood in the crowd watching the action, listening to the rhythm of the auctioneer and the shouts of bidders and spotters. There came a moment that clinched something like a calling. The auctioneer spotted Merle, his boyish interest in what was happening, and called, “Sonny, ya wanna sell the rug?” Merle walked through this open door, took the stage, and in a maiden performance auctioned his grandma’s rug to the delight of the crowd. He had found his bliss.
Fast forward forty years. There may not be an estate rug on sale this year, but the Peach Cobbler Mennonite Auction is all for a good cause. This year the proceeds go toward bringing safe drinking water to school children in the thirsty Middle East. At other times, the sale has benefitted literacy and micro-enterprise programs, refugees, victims of storms, floods and war, as well as recovery from trauma. In two decades, the sale has raised over $500,000 to meet such global needs. And Merle’s voice has moved that purpose forward every year with verve and passion, often together with his wife Marlene, noted caterer and restaurant owner. This year will be the resounding conclusion of a 20-year auction tradition that has brought together Mennonites from across the region with a host of community participants. Keep your eyes peeled. There may well be a girl or boy in the crowd who meets with destiny in this rousing, family event! And the result will make a difference for good, the sweetest victory lane of all.