BALTIMORE -- Leroy M. Merritt, chairman and founder of Baltimore-based Merritt Athletic Clubs and Merritt Properties, has died. He was 79.

Merritt died Monday after a brief illness caused by complications from cancer.

“Leroy’s integrity, generosity and good humor will be deeply missed by everyone who had the opportunity to work with him,” Scott Dorsey, president of Merritt Properties, said in a statement. “This is a very sad time for all of us.”

In 1977, Merritt opened Towson Merritt Athletic Club, which included Nautilus equipment and several racquetball courts. On opening night, the club had 900 people trying to get court time, according to an account in The Baltimore Sun. As racquetball gained popularity in the 1980s, Merritt added more locations, and he became an enthusiast of the sport.

“I loved it. Everybody loved it. I had to go over at 1:00 in the morning to play because it was so busy,” Merritt said in an interview.

Merritt’s racket, once on display at the Museum of American History, is now housed at the Smithsonian.

Merritt Athletic Clubs now operates nine full-service health clubs in the Baltimore area, with racquetball and squash courts in five of the locations. Merritt Properties owns and manages the largest privately held commercial real estate portfolio in the Baltimore/Washington, DC, region, with 16 million square feet in more than 70 locations.

Merritt stepped away from day-to-day operations of Merritt Properties in 2000 but maintained an office at the company, dubbing himself the CFO—Chief Fun Officer.

Known for his generosity and service to the Baltimore community, Merritt founded the Leroy M. Merritt Charitable Trust in 1999. The trust supports a number of local organizations that provide for the immediate needs of disadvantaged women and children. Merritt also owned a popular bar and restaurant in Aspen, CO.

Dorsey is Merritt’s cousin and the son of one of the uncles who taught Merritt the construction business. Merritt’s son, Robb, is vice president of Merritt Properties.

“As a company, all of us—Robb, the Merritt team and I—will continue to honor Leroy’s legacy of respect, loyalty and service,” Dorsey said in the statement.

Merritt’s funeral will be held Saturday in the Baltimore suburb of Timonium, MD.