As executive director of the San Joaquin County Historical Museum, Phillip Merlo understands the importance of cultural narratives. (Photo by Terence Duffy)

Young Professionals: Phillip Merlo

Meet the emerging leaders who envision a bright future for the Capital Region

Back Article Jun 7, 2024 By Dakota Morlan

Phillip Merlo

Executive Director, San Joaquin County Historical Museum

This story is part of our June 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Phillip Merlo isn’t much of a self-promoter. A voracious reader, he quotes a sentiment he internalized from a John le Carré spy novel: “I give my life to institutions, and I expect nothing in return” (or something like that). “All you can do is give your life to making things and places and people better,” he says. If you are truly focused on that work, he adds, people will notice. 

The place to which Merlo has given much of his life is Stockton, where he grew up. The institution is San Joaquin County Historical Museum, a pleasantly arbored 18-acre compound in the agrarian outskirts of Lodi. But if his mother had not died suddenly just weeks before his college graduation, Merlo would have likely ended up pouring his efforts into somewhere further flung — namely, China, where he studied abroad while earning his degree in geography and history from UC Berkeley. 

 “In places that are understudied or underinvested in across the country, you will tend to see younger people involved, because oftentimes it’s youth who are most interested in making a difference in their community.”

Phillip’s mother, Julia Merlo, was a financial planner who left her career to become a beloved teacher in Stockton. His father, Eric Merlo, is part of a long line of architects and a fourth-generation Stocktonian. “Both of my parents were morally driven people,” says Phillip Merlo.

After his mother’s death, he had to take a step back and decide what was most important to him. “And I came to the realization that … building community and building complex relationships with the people you care about and love was ultimately at the heart of a happy and successful life,” he says.

As it goes, his community needed him, too. Often overlooked by academics and disparaged by news media, Stockton has gained a reputation as a high-crime, backwater city of little import. Not true, according to Merlo. At just 31, he is the foremost historian and advocate for Stockton’s historical and cultural significance, as a former hub for industrial innovation and one of the most ethnically diverse cities in America.

“In places that are understudied or underinvested in across the country, you will tend to see younger people involved, because oftentimes it’s youth who are most interested in making a difference in their community,” he says. 

Encouraged by two mentors he worked with in his first year back home — Dillon Delvo, executive director and co-founder of Little Manila Rising (Merlo serves on the board), and Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director at Restore the Delta — Merlo became a history teacher at Franklin High School, his alma mater, giving lectures on the history of Stockton and San Joaquin County with tie-ins to national and international history. During his tenure, the school received a grant to establish a museum where students could work with artifacts. 

Phillip Merlo, a self-proclaimed “hat guy,” examines an interesting specimen at the Thursday Bodega Days farmers market at Cesar Chavez Park.

Merlo was head-hunted for the director of education position at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum, where he was able to expand upon his work researching, writing for academic journals and giving lectures at hundreds of institutions. He plans to write a book titled after one of his lectures, “Metropolis, Lost: Immigration, Education, Segregation, and Economic Development in Greater Stockton.”

He’s also chair of Stockton’s Cultural Heritage Board, which he led efforts to revitalize. In his down time, Merlo enjoys running, deer hunting and playing chess. He lives in a house designed by his grandfather, built by his great-grandfather. And he plans to one day earn a Ph.D. in history to satisfy his own “intellectual curiosity.”

These interests continue into his current role as the museum’s executive director, which he assumed three years ago, but the job also requires business acumen, which Merlo fortunately has. He was able to steer the museum toward a solid financial footing after the pandemic, and an eight-figure redevelopment project that includes a pioneer village is expected to break ground in the fall.

The museum also provides historical narratives for media projects and graduate students’ dissertations, while cataloging and preserving archives from Stockton’s manifold communities. 

“Fundamentally, we have to be this infrastructure because no one else is going to do it, and these stories matter. These narratives matter, and our people matter,” Merlo says.

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