Elma Merle Mears McClellan Duncan, Baylor University historian and faculty leader, daughter of Thomas Robert Mears and Rosa Elma Belcher Watkins Mears, was born in Coryell County, Texas, on September 6, 1895. Her father was a farmer and lawyer who, upon being elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1904, moved his family to Gatesville. He served two terms (1905–09), and Merle, who always went by her middle name, grew up in Gatesville and graduated from high school there in 1913.
Merle Mears entered the University of Texas in 1913 and spent the next four years enjoying the life of a college student and athlete. She completed a double major in history and science, belonged to Delta Delta Delta sorority, and earned three letters as a member of the women’s basketball team. During her senior year in 1917, she was captain of the team. A notation under her picture in the 1917 UT yearbook The Cactus read, appropriately, “Merle is very nearly an advocate of the strenuous life.”
Following graduation from the University of Texas, Mears taught school in Gatesville for several years. On June 1, 1920, she married William Clay McClellan, a lawyer in Gatesville, and they had a son, Thomas Rufus McClellan, on January 11, 1922. The family soon moved to Waco, where Clay McClellan developed a law practice. Tragically, he died of cancer at the age of forty-eight in 1938 and left Merle a widow. She worked at a WPA job until 1939 when her son Tom won appointment to the United States Naval Academy. She accompanied him to the Annapolis area in the summer of 1939 and began the career that would occupy her for the remainder of her life by enrolling in two graduate courses in history at George Washington University. (Thomas Rufus McClellan completed his studies at the Naval Academy and eventually became a rear admiral in the United States Navy. He died in Washington, D.C., in 2010 and is buried at the U. S. Naval Academy Cemetery.)
Merle Mears McClellan returned to Waco and completed work on a master’s degree in history at Baylor University in 1941. She then taught at Baylor for four years before resigning in 1945 to marry Bruce Duncan, a Central Texas rancher and businessman. She later resumed her graduate study and studied under the direction of famous historians such as Herbert Bolton at the University of California and Eugene C. Barker and Charles Hackett at the University of Texas. It was not uncommon for academic faculty not to hold doctoral degrees as late as the mid-twentieth century. Thus, even though she did not write a dissertation or earn her doctorate, in 1956 Merle Duncan returned to the faculty at Baylor and taught international relations as well as history until a final retirement in 1960.
Mears McClellan Duncan was well-known by the mid-1940s for her work in university education, and she began to play an important role in the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA). Elected to the organization’s executive council in 1944, she served twenty years, during which she was chosen a “Fellow” of the association (1953) and elected to three consecutive terms as president from 1959 to 1962. In a 1977 interview, she called being chosen a “Fellow” of the TSHA “about the best honor I’ve ever had.”
Duncan lived in retirement in Waco until her death there on September 30, 1985. She was buried in the Masonic Cemetery at Gatesville, Texas.