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Beavers' super fan still going strong at age 97

CORVALLIS — It’s 11 a.m. on a weekday in Corvallis and Oregon State University super-fan Merritt Jensen is in his usual spot.

Dressed in black and orange from head to toe, Jensen, 97, is seated on a chair at Gill Coliseum next to the training staff as the OSU women’s volleyball team goes through a practice while preparing for a preseason tournament.

It’s the “usual spot” for Jensen because he watches every practice and every home match of the Beavers’ volleyball squad. Ditto for the OSU women’s basketball team.

“Ever since the first day I got here in 2005, I started seeing this elderly gentleman,” said OSU coach Taras Liskevych. “And I’m saying ‘what is he doing here?’ Then I got to know him, and he’s such a spritely 97-year-old. Kind of a father figure. He means a lot to us.”

Indeed, team members flock to Jensen’s chair for hugs and goodbyes as practice concludes.

“That’s the one from Istanbul,” Jensen said after exchanging greetings with junior Lila Toner from Turkey.

Every practice, one of the players takes on the responsibility for walking Jensen out to this car. On this day it is senior Darby Reeder. Jensen drives himself to practice but notes that he is using a cane, a sign that he is “slowing down.”

Don’t believe it. Jensen regularly comes to meet the bus — both departures and arrivals — that takes the Beavers to road trips. He has traveled as far as Charlotte, North Carolina, to watch the volleyball squad play and also regularly goes to road matches in Portland and Eugene.

Jensen, who has sports memories that go back to a 1931 Iowa state high school basketball championship team, moved to Corvallis in 1990 and immediately became a Beaver backer. But he found that getting close to the men’s team was difficult because of its status.

“They wanted me to sit in the balcony, even for practice,” Jensen said. “I got started with the girls because they let me be on the floor.”

And thus began the process of Jensen gradually becoming a part of the Beaver family — and other families as well.

“As you go on, new people come in,” Jensen said. “You follow them for three or four years and then they move on. I’ve gotten to know a lot of the parents. I go to the (players') weddings and they bring their children to see me. I still am in contact with players and some of the parents.”

Jensen said he has been to a half-dozen or so weddings of OSU female athletes. And the reason for his devotion, he said, is simple.

“They treat me nice. It’s a nice group of people,” Jensen said. “I see them working hard. I see them happy with what they are doing. They work well with the coaches and well with each other. They are a good bunch of kids. When people say young people are going to hell … they don’t see the people I see.”

And the warmth is reciprocated. The volleyball program gives out the Merritt B. Jensen Coaches Award each season to the most “coachable” player and the women’s hoops squad has named one of its plays the “Merritt.”