Open House is Sunday, November 3
Join Us for our Open House.
Sunday, November 3, 2:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. Details.
Some 350 people braved the cold and snowbanks on Saturday, January 6th, for the memorial service for Charles E. Merrill, Jr at Emmanuel Church in Boston’s Back Bay. The service, officiated by longtime Commonwealth teacher and trustee Polly Chatfield, included remarks and music that represented the full scope of Charles’s commitments, achievements, and tastes. Music ranged from a sing-along of a favorite country music piece to a performance of the Polish national anthem (Poland has not yet perished as long as we still live), and various speakers, including Charles’s daughter Amy, Krakow publisher Henryk Wozniakowski, and Marian Wright Edelman spoke of Charles’s life and work in family, school, politics, writing, and civil rights. The service was followed by a reception at Commonwealth School.
Photos by Tia Chapman
Marian Wright Edelman
Charles E. Merrill, Jr. died in November at age 97. A son and heir to the founder of Merrill Lynch, he endowed a scholarship that opened up the whole world to me as a young 18-year-old Black girl from a small segregated South Carolina town—a priceless gift. For the first time in my life, in Europe as a Spelman College Merrill Scholar, I felt what it meant to be free, to explore and savor new places and cultures, and learn that I could comfortably navigate the world and connect with human beings of all races and cultures and faiths. His influence will live on in my children and grandchildren who already are exploring the world and questioning barriers to justice. Equally priceless was his caring friendship, mentorship, and example over the years. I thank him from the bottom of my heart for his commitment to empowering the young and for his modesty and capacity for friendship that lasted a lifetime. I prayed for his peaceful passage, knowing that the many seeds he planted live on in gratitude.
Impressed with the confidence and pride of Morehouse men he’d met in the army, Charles Merrill sought out Morehouse College and Dr. Benjamin E. Mays and eventually chaired Morehouse’s Board of Trustees. His lasting contributions include establishing Merrill Scholarships for a year’s travel and study abroad for Morehouse students which he later, thank goodness, extended to one Spelman student in 1957 and then two in 1958.
I was 18 years old and a sophomore at all women’s Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, when I was summoned to President Albert Manley’s office. I’ll never forget my fear as I wondered what infraction I’d committed, or my elated disbelief at being told I’d been chosen to be one of two Merrill Scholars. This greatest campus honor provided a year of study and travel abroad. I ran back to my dorm in tears to call my Mama to share the exciting news, which spread like wild re throughout my hometown of Bennettsville, South Carolina.
The first morning I woke up in freedom in a Paris hotel across from the Luxembourg Gardens, I jumped up and down and yelled and pinched myself again and again. Having no one, parent or teacher or chaperone, to prescribe the day was a miracle. That’s how I learned I could travel the world without losing my moral compass or common sense, and not to fear, indeed to enjoy, being alone.
Charles Merrill did not just give a scholarship; he gave himself in long conversations, letters, and visits. He became a lifelong friend whose confidence and expectations I wanted to live up to and reciprocate. I still do. He shared time and advice and books including Orwell’s 1984 and The Road to Wigan Pier that remain on my bookshelves. He responded regularly to my long, excited ramblings during my year abroad. Painfully shy but keenly interested in my youthful perceptions and experiences, he multiplied his investment in sending students abroad.
After graduating from Spelman, I would visit Charles and Mary Merrill’s home on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, their farm in New Hampshire, and occasionally Commonwealth School. When I was in law school, he visited me in New Haven, treated me to a play and dinner, and came to Mississippi where he applauded my ability not just to try civil rights cases but to competently cook an egg sunny side up for breakfast. He later served on the Children’s Defense Fund’s board and made me as proud as a child by attending every one of my five W.E.B. DuBois lectures at Harvard in the 1980s and coming to hear me in Boston when my book, The Measure of Our Success, was published.
Children and adults never cease needing the approval of our mentors. In opening up the whole world to me–an 18-year-old Black girl sixty years ago—Charles Merrill also opened it up to my three sons and grandchildren who travel comfortably all over the world today, and recognize the common humanity of God in all peoples, regardless of language, geography, color, ideology, or nationality.
Many ask today whether Black children and youth can benefit from role models and mentors of other races. Of course they can. While children certainly need mentors with whom they can identify personally from common experiences of race, gender, culture, and economic circumstance, they also need to be shown and taught that human values and caring know no racial or gender boundaries; that all people have something to teach and learn; that race and class need not prevent sharing and helping; and that every person is our neighbor and every child our charge. Charles Merrill enabled me to learn these lessons, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart.
I was born eighty five years ago in rural Hungary. My family was Jewish. During World War II, in 1944 when I was 12 years old, the Holocaust overwhelmed the Jews of Hungary. On a day in early July 1944, I and the rest of the Jews of my town ended up on the train platform of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp. The rest of my family, my father, mother, and kid brother, perished in the gas chambers before the day was over. I managed to survive and was liberated by the Americans in early May of 1945.
With the war in Europe over, and with no one to go back to in Hungary, I ended up in a refugee camp in Italy in the town of Modena. I was alone, just over 13 years old, ragged and hungry. One day a Jeep drove up, with four GI’s and their duffle bags inside. With sign language, I offered my services as a porter. One of the soldiers smiled and pointed to his bags. After I delivered the bag to his room, the soldier gave me a chocolate bar and we attempted to make conversation. In broken German, I told him about my situation, and he was visibly moved. For the next five days he spent all of his free time with me, taking me to the movies and restaurants, walking and talking with me. Five days after I met him, the soldier was transferred. Shortly thereafter I, too, was moved to a more humane setting in an orphanage in Northern Italy.
After the GI was demobilized and returned to the States he wrote me a letter saying that he could not get me out of his mind, and that after talking it over with his wife, he wanted to bring me to the States and to take me into his family. I believe by now you can guess that the name of this American soldier was Charles Merrill.
I believe you will agree that this is a story of much more than just incredible charity and compassion. It is, of course, both of those things. But it is also that of boundless courage, the courage to take into his home and family a homeless urchin wandering through the wreckage of post-war Europe who could have been a totally damaged human being. What he did for me and for so many others shows that a single human being can make a difference.
Charles Merrill was a legend to me and my siblings when we were children. In 1958, when the window of post-Stalinian thaw opened and passports became available, my father was invited to the United States by the State Department as an independent intellectual from a communist country. It was his first trip abroad after the war, and when he returned he couldn’t stop talking about an unusual American he’d met at some Harvard seminar. What made the man unusual was his fascination with Poland, which he had visited in July 1939, shortly before the war.
Charles Merrill soon appeared in person, first accompanied by his wife, Mary, then by his children, and became a fixtureof our life. His visits, his unquenched interest in Polish affairs, witty postcards sent from all over the world, and his unfailing, regular help in times of the worst economic crisis, all gave us the strongest sense of his friendship and support. Later, a six-week language course in Dublin, sponsored by Charles, enabled me to achieve a level of English necessary for my editorial work and essential for my later political activity. My brother owes Charles his chance to study at Harvard Divinity School, which gave him the knowledge and skills he later deployed in creating the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
In addition to my family’s debts of gratitude towards Charles are the many efforts he undertook on behalf of Polish students whom he supported with scholarships; his generosity towards Lublin Catholic University; his help to private schools; and his aid to Polish artists. Listed among his beneficiaries in the ’50s are Czeslaw Milosz, the future Nobel prize winner, and the Paris publishing house Kultura, at the time the most important center of Polish culture and political thought outside of Poland.
It has to be said, however, that Charles also owed a lot to Poland and the Poles. For years he started each of his visits with a little ritual, stating how inspirational to him were two of his Polish best friends, the old aristocrat colonel Grocholski and my father. Charles’s book The Journey: Massacre of the Innocents helped me to grasp the nature of this strong friendship between two such different people. Charles pondered the mechanisms behind power and violence, the functioning of totalitarian systems, historical paroxysms and changes, but above all, he was concerned about man ground by the powerful mill of history, his ability to confront reality and to survive in a physical, but primarily in a moral, sense. For Charles, Remigiusz Grocholski and Jacek Wozniakowski became the embodiment of characters who not only survived two totalitarianisms, but who dared to oppose them with a gun or a pen in hand, and when that proved impossible, passed their moral and cultural capital on to those who could still persevere, could still fight, and in some yet unknown, undefined future stood a chance of creating new reality. “Poland has not yet perished as long as we still live...” Charles loved this beginning of the Polish anthem. According to Charles, “If a nation is to acquire any self-confidence, then it has to build a sense of honor out of respect for truth.” The same applies to individuals. A man must be both open minded and rooted in his culture, for only then he is able to cooperate with others for a good cause.
Democracy was a good cause for Charles Merrill.
He wrote, “democracy starts with the way you act in whatever community you are dropped into.” That is why he believed in small, meaningful projects.
“Will they save Poland?” he asked. He saw the risk of big social designs, underpinned by ideology, which too often becomes the instrument of fanaticism and violence. With his attempt to see things as they were, and with his unbiased curiosity about the world, he never succumbed to ideological opium and used to mock left-wing intellectuals who turned a blind eye to crimes committed by Mao or Stalin.
Yet, I believe that the value he placed at the top of his list, although he seldom or never named it, was mercy—the mercy which does its best with the full awareness of helplessness.
My first visit to the U.S. and to Charles Merrill in Boston left me with the memory of his desk strewn with petitions, imploring letters, and cheques that he kept filling and sending to numerous poor people. He admitted that “this level of arbitrary charity is meaningless” but then added that “in a country as callous as ours, where are the alternatives?”
According to Pope Francis “the name of God is mercy.”
So discreet when it came to revealing his own religious convictions, Charles Merrill proved with his whole life that he had a deep knowledge of that name: the name of God.
Amy Merrill '64
I would like to welcome you to Boston’s stormy blast and today’s service in memory of Charles Merrill, teacher, headmaster, World War II veteran, writer, painter, world traveler, father, husband, grandfather, great-grandfather, uncle, father-in-law.
Dad believed in a person’s potential. He didn’t just believe in you, he’d back up his faith in you with a Commonwealth School education, scholarships, travel opportunities. In a YouTube interview, he speaks about the “narrowness” of his upbringing, and the rest of his life was a struggle to break away from that narrowness, to live in a bigger world that was in keeping with his humanistic commitment to education and creativity.
Dad’s journey to realize his own potential began with his marriage to my mother, Mary Klohr, a proud daughter of Chicago, but there were other milestones: the 1939 trip to Poland; his military service, which began, like that of so many men of his generation, right after Pearl Harbor; his work that same year at a socialist co-operative farm in Mississippi; the chance encounter in 1945 with Bernat Rosner, a Hungarian teenager in a refugee camp in Modena, Italy, that led to Dad’s inviting Bernat to come and join our family in St. Louis; the Fulbright grant that brought him, my mother, and three children to Graz, Austria, in the early 1950s.
Another turning point took place in late 1950s Paris, where we had moved so that Dad could write novels and mingle with French intelligentsia. As he and Catherine were going over a poem, Dad realized that what he really wanted to do was teach. Dad used to say that he had been completely independent during his twenty-three years of running Commonwealth. From my experience there, from 1959 to 1964, I have concluded that he must have been having a wonderful time. Not only did he run the school, handle admissions, and make college visits, he also taught Bible, U.S. history, and fencing. If a teacher was out, he subbed. That crash course in Mexican history. Mr. Merrill’s sex ed class. Dad could teach anything.
After Charles retired from Commonwealth, he wrote, painted, and traveled a lot with my mother, who, freed from her responsibilities was concentrating on her masterpieces, colorful tapestries, many of them inspired by their travels in Central and South America. Both of my parents have taught me that getting older doesn’t mean slowing down. My mother did her best weaving work in her sixties and seventies, and Dad just kept on going.
After my mother died in 1999, Charles found great happiness in his second marriage to Julie Boudreaux, who shared his passion for Poland. The day after Charles died, peacefully, in their apartment in Nowy Sacz, a cozy place filled with his paintings, objects from their travels, and many, many happy photos of them together, Julie turned to David, Paul, Emma, Meg, and me and said: “We had a lot of fun together.”
David once said that Charles told him that he wanted to live an exciting life. And that’s exactly what he did. Thank you.
Join Us for our Open House.
Sunday, November 3, 2:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. Details.