The economy is going down the toilet. Or, so you hear every time you turn on the radio. Or listen to the TV news. Or read the newspaper.

I hate to say it, but my 401(k) plan is certainly going down the crapper. Don’t know about you, but I dislike losing hard-earned money. With all the negative news circulating today, it’s enough to make a grown man - or woman - cry.

But then I talk to Bernie Merkel on the phone and realize life is not so bad. Not bad at all.

For those of you who do not know Merkel, he was voted 2007 Instructor of the Year by The NEWS. (By the way, the 2008 winner will be featured in the Nov. 10 issue.)

Up until July 1 of this year, Merkel was the director of HVAC Service Training at International Training Institute (iTi), the training arm of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA) and Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA). The ambitious teacher would still be bouncing about the classroom, but kidney cancer is just making it too painful for the 59-year-old man to stand for hours. And without mobility, Merkel had to bow out.

“I could have sat down and taught, but that’s not my style,” he told me via telephone Oct. 24. “That’s not my style. I have to move around and bop ‘em [students] on the head every once in a while.”

Even though life threw Merkel a vicious curve nearly two years ago when he was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, the man still has a sense of humor and remains upbeat. At least he comes across that way.

“I’m hanging in there,” he told me. “It just came to the point that my legs cannot handle standing up for any length of time.”

While he is not looking forward to this winter in cold Rochester, N.Y., he said he will make the best of it. He appreciated the time he had this summer at the family cottage in Thousand Islands, N.Y. There was a time not too long ago when Merkel, as service work specialist and director of certification for the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI; 1999-2001), did not have any free time, being on the road 306 days a year instructing. His wife, Sharon, had to send fresh clothes by mail.

“I was bouncing all over the country,” he said.

This summer was the first time in a very long time that he was able to visit the cottage - period. And, for the very first time in a long time, he did not have to bring a laptop or cell phone along. Instead, he was able to play with his grandkids and his own children.

It’s nice to know that a couple of students still call him religiously. Not only to see how he is doing, but to ask him some HVACR-related questions. It keeps a smile on his face.

“I hope they don’t stop calling,” he said. “I can still try to help.”

Doctors told him that his condition is status quo, meaning the disease is not growing. And, that is how Merkel is looking at life today - on a positive note.

“I’ve come to live with it,” he said, adding without a beat, “I’m going to beat it.”

Not sure if I would have the same attitude. Compared to the pain he is going through, life is not bad at all. Not bad at all.

Care to contact Bernie Merkel? He’d love to hear from you. His e-mail address is: