A Life Well Lived

Written by Eric Davis, former Commonwealth English teacher

Charles Edward Merrill, Jr., an educator, author, and philanthropist best known for championing historically black colleges and for founding Commonwealth School in Boston, died on Wednesday, November 29th in Nowy Sącz, Poland at age 97.

Building on—and reacting against—the privileges conferred on him by family wealth, Merrill turned his life into a mission to reach, challenge, and aid hard-pressed people who might, if given the chance, have something of value to offer the world. He often traced this impulse back to his experiences as a private in the American 5th Army in World War II, where he saw individuals and whole populations who refused to succumb to relentless coercion and grievous loss. He was well aware that, in practice, even small gains could count for a lot.

After the war, Merrill helped his friend and Harvard classmate Robin McCoy start Thomas Jefferson School in St. Louis, then worked for a year in Austria on a Fulbright grant. After two years spent writing unpublished novels, he decided to establish a school of his own instead. The result was Commonwealth School, a coeducational institution for grades 9-12 that opened in 1958 in a pair of townhouses on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue and that graduates some 35 students a year. Its aim was twofold: to educate leaders who could bring expertise and tough-minded benevolence to bear on America’s problems, and to give significant numbers of young black students a share in that enterprise. Its watchwords would be critical thinking, hard work, and a common sense of purpose. Of equal importance, the hard work would include taking turns washing the dishes and sweeping the floors.

As headmaster, Merrill himself taught courses in every grade and, early on, ran classes in fencing. His students remember him as a challenging man who did not expect perfection but did look to bring out the best in them. It was not unusual for him to foot the tuition bills, even college tuition, for students who were financially distressed. His defining mark may be his inclination to let conflicting elements flourish: this, he felt, was closer to the ambiguous realities of life than any set code of conduct could be. This formula proved a volatile one in the sixties and early seventies, when every question was hotly debated and a shared sense of purpose was hard to find.

On a wider scale, Merrill championed many constructive initiatives by black Americans, from programs for neglected youngsters in urban ghettos to major funding for traditionally black colleges like Morehouse and Spelman. In 1964, Merrill hired Jonathan Kozol, a young Harvard grad who had just been fired from the Boston Public Schools for teaching a Langston Hughes poem, to establish a summer enrichment program for Boston minority students hosted at Commonwealth, the Urban School. The Urban School became a model for Kozol when he joined the Johnson administration and helped to establish the Upward Bound program. Merrill also served for 15 years as Chairman of Morehouse’s Board of Trustees; Merrill Fellowships for a year of study abroad have gone to more than 200 students over the years at those two institutions as well as at Emory College. Those he aided include the author and philanthropist Marian Wright Edelman, author Alice Walker, and Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund.

Similar support continued to promising individuals of all backgrounds; to inventive new undertakings; and to schools, colleges, and universities across the country that looked to implement fresh ideas. Foremost among the latter was Merrill College in the University of California at Santa Cruz, a center for worldwide ethnic studies established via a large Merrill grant in 1968. Stanford, Amherst, Hampshire and the University of Pennsylvania also received major support, while Merrill himself served on the Boards of Directors at Hampshire and Marlboro. Some of the hundreds of grants dispensed came directly from Merrill and some were dispensed through the Charles E. Merrill Trust, which he chaired for most of its 23-year life span. Founded by and named after his father, the trust gave out over $114 million before closing its doors in the late 1980s. In his book, The Checkbook, Merrill reviews the thinking behind grants the trust made to a total of 955 recipients engaged in social, religious, medical, cultural, educational, and philanthropic enterprises. His relish for direct contact and tough decisions is evident on every page.

Travel to Eastern Europe became a major feature of Merrill’s life as early as 1939. The struggles of countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia to keep their identities in the face of Nazi and, later, Soviet oppression won his profound admiration. Here, too, he developed extensive contacts over the years. He supported the establishment of independent progressive schools in Poland, most notably Splot (Polish for “knot”) in the city of Nowy Sacz, and he founded in 1990 the Polish-Czech Schools Project through which university students in Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic were given the chance to study for a year in the U.S.A. In honor of this initiative, Poland awarded Merrill its Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit in 2002; recognizing the $7 million that he had personally put into it, Palacký University of Olomouc in Czechoslovakia gave Merrill an honorary degree of its own in 2007.

Merrill retired from Commonwealth School in 1981 and published The Walled Garden, an account of his experiences as headmaster, a year later. Other books followed: The Journey on his experiences in Eastern Europe, The Trip to Paris, Emily’s Year, The Great Ukrainian Partisan Movement, and The Checkbook. He kept up longstanding interests in painting vividly abstract watercolors, in travel, and in speaking on politics and the need for reform.

His daughter, Amy Merrill ’64 writes, “A couple of weeks before his death, Merrill and Boudreaux traveled to Krakow to attend a pro-democracy demonstration, where they were met by Merrill’s granddaughter Lottie Howard-Merrill and acquaintances. Bundled in a red robe, Charles wore a pro-democracy button. Attending a rally against the authoritarian Polish government on a chilly November day may not have been the wisest choice for a frail, 97-year-old man, but it was a characteristic act for a rare individual who, even at the very end of his life, was committed to taking a stand for democracy and enlightened thinking.”

Merrill married his college sweetheart, Mary White Klohr, his wife of fifty-seven years, who passed away in 1999. He is survived by Julie Boudreaux, his wife of seven years, by five children from his first marriage––Catherine, Amy, Bruce, David, and Paul––and by eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.