"It was not a great time to be a black guy and a white guy," he said of their friendship.
The two lost touch after Farmer transferred to Ravenswood High School in his junior year. But in 2001 they were reunited when Merrill found out about The Doctors Sports Bar & Grill and walked into Farmer's community restaurant.
"It was like we never missed a beat," he said of their reunion.
Merrill had to grieve Farmer's murder just 11 months after the shooting death of his own son: East Palo Alto Police Officer Richard May. May was slain Jan. 7, 2006, after confronting a man allegedly involved in a fight.
Farmer consoled him at the restaurant in the months following May's death, Merrill said.
"I'll never be judgmental of how people deal with grief. From the moment of what happened to my son, life has never been the same," Merrill said.
"The power of that bullet to fundamentally change everything — I could not put into words."
"The best advice I received was from a police officer who said, 'Don't let that bullet that killed your son destroy your whole family.' I didn't understand that then but I sure do understand that now.
"As hard as you try, you try to make things right — but it's just not right," he said.
During the years since he and Farmer reunited, Merrill became acutely aware of the disparity between their lives. Merrill grew up in Atherton and Menlo Park and his life took an upward trajectory; but young men such as Farmer, who grew up in East Palo Alto, suffered inequality. Farmer succeeded, but nearly every East Palo Alto male they knew in high school is either dead or in jail, he said.
Farmer accepted that reality as an unfortunate part of life, he said.
"The landscape of East Palo Alto is littered with failures — with the low self-esteem of those kids, of the city. They've always been the ugly stepchild of the Peninsula," Merrill said.
"It's so profound and unfair and wrong. Within the context of what happened to Rich, I said, 'I can't wake up in the morning and think about this disparity and inequality.'"
So Merrill took on a project that Father Lawrence Goode of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church had been trying to accomplish for 20 years.
Goode had tried unsuccessfully to raise money to create a soccer field on land next to the church.
So Merrill, an avid rugby player, began raising funds for a professional-level rugby and soccer field for East Palo Alto youth. So far, he has raised $450,000, with a goal of raising $2 million.
"The thing that just amazes me is the capacity for the human mind to adjust and the ability to overcome things," he said.
"I'm an optimist. I couldn't get out of bed in the morning if I wasn't. Something like this takes you to the bottom of your existence and makes you question many, many things.
"Life's not fair. For some people it's more unfair than to others."
This story contains 551 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.