Remembering Charles E. Merrill, Jr.
Since his passing last November, Commonwealth graduates and former teachers around the world have shared memories of Charles Merrill’s impact on their lives.
Here is a sampling of what the Commonwealth community had to say.
Most of us at Charles’s memorial service learned more about him that afternoon than we had ever known before. His generosity was so quiet, his modesty so great, his concentration on the things at hand so focused that those who worked daily with him at school had only a partial sense of how large were his interests and how magnificent his aims. When he articulated his educational hopes in The Walled Garden and Letters to a Young Teacher, we found we had breathed them in and made them our own just by working with him and listening to his talks in Chapel and his comments in faculty meetings, or by the occasional quiet moments in his office when we went to him with a question or a piece of happy news. Charles simply was what he pointed young people toward.
In the first decades of the school’s existence all Commonwealth students had a job caring for the building— emptying waste baskets or cleaning blackboards at day’s end, doing dishes after lunch, dusting the stair railings or the intricate woodwork in the headmaster’s office. Since my office/classroom was on the Dartmouth Street side of the building, I would often see Charles trudging quietly up those “back” stairs at the end of the day with an armful of toilet paper for the third door girls’ bathroom. Whether that was the job he assigned himself or whether he was afraid that our janitor would neglect the girls’ needs, I don’t know, but that particular sight of him was, to me, a special gift, and I’ve never forgotten it. It seemed all of a piece with his being head of the Board of Trustees at Morehouse College, and our never knowing about it until one Monday morning in the late ’60s when he was not at school and it turned out that the Morehouse students had taken the Board hostage and Charles had missed his plane back to Boston.
Sometime in the ’70s he gave me one of his small watercolors. The lower part depicts some ruined columns above which are some abstract shapes. Despite the fact that the painting is almost 50 years old, the blues and oranges are still brilliant. I have always believed that there was a certain symbolism in his gift. I believed that the ruined columns were because I taught Latin. He had hated Latin when he was at Deerfield, and no wonder. When he and I were young, Latin consisted of grammar, more grammar, Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Cicero’s Orations Against Catiline— fighting and anger, no poetry, no beauty, no thought. So when he hired me, he told me that he “wanted to stamp out Latin.” I didn’t really believe him, and went about creating my own Latin curriculum with the autonomy he offered to all his teachers. What the abstract shapes in the painting were meant to imply I have never known, but I have imagined them as his ideas, his thoughts, his dreams in a class that seemed impossible to bear, ideas which were derived from exposure to the very subject he couldn’t stand, an image of the discipline he knew must underlie any life of purpose and accomplishment. The painting hangs in my study as a very special reminder of his humanity, his affection, and his greatness of mind.
Former English, Renaissance history, and art history teacher
I was still an enthusiastic novice at Commonwealth—in my third year of teaching, I think—when Charles gave me the job of running a Hancock. This terrified me. What I liked most about Hancock was playing baseball, and now . . . this thing upon me was more like a mob. So much to foresee, so many to mobilize! A useful panic. I made lists—a way to imagine what had to happen. Colleagues and older students told me where things were kept. I made phone calls. I got a huge billboard image to hang on the barn: a segment of that tough guy, The Marlboro Man. I learned how to make energizing announcements. To sound like I was running the show.
And then it was over. The last of the buses disappeared down the road to the lower barn, leaving behind it a silence. For what seemed a poignant moment Charles and I stood there where the buses had been, looking down the road. Then he turned to me: “You have set a new standard for Hancocks,” he said, and shook my hand. It was my turn to go.
It’s that moment of silence that strikes me now. A drama was over: the stage was empty, its actors gone. Charles knew perfectly well that he was the one who had made it all happen. From a certain distance he saw it all, and his genius lay in letting us take up roles and invent our own lines. That’s how Hancock became our Hancock, just as Commonwealth became our school.
In his post-headmaster years, you could see the same sort of drama awaken in Charles himself when he came to make his annual appearance before the whole school, down in the lunchroom at Assembly time. Lately, this wasn’t an easy matter: Charles began to arrive looking worn, bent over, in need of help. Once on stage, however, and introduced—facing the kind of audience he’d known so well––an amazing transformation occurred. His presence grew upright, forceful, alert; his voice took hold; his pithy style made difficult thinking seem a challenging game. He stopped talking quite soon, too, to provoke discussion. He spoke, in short, with the authority of the Charles of old. If he sometimes lost track of where he was in his list of topics, it didn’t matter. Like the rest of us, he was having a wonderful time.
The finale? Every time, in those last years, the kids sent him off with a standing ovation.
Former English teacher
Charles distrusted rigid rules that would turn the school into, in his words, “a well-run jail.” Any position he took involved an acute awareness of ambiguities and contradictions. His own character was full of contradictions. His generosity in bestowing a fortune upon many great social causes, the arts, and worthy individuals was legendary. Yet he could be extremely frugal. I recall him on more than one occasion at a restaurant pocketing packages of crackers from the breadbasket. In the 1970s he kept the thermostat so low that in classrooms students huddled together in their puffy down coats and you could see your breath in the air. He wasn’t really kidding when he said to me when I first embarked upon teaching, “It is better to be feared than loved.” Indeed, in his own classes he could be terrifying when he stopped mid-sentence and, pointing at an unwitting student, put him on the spot to finish it. And yet he spent many hours in one-to-one conversations with students about what they had at heart and their aims in life, and many recall his acts of kindness that changed their lives. He inspired love and devotion in many of us who worked for him. Our wonderful cook, Ila Moore, in her apron would approach Charles at the coffee machine with a huge bowl of whipped cream so that he could have “kaffee mit shlag,” her gesture of love.
When I (just out of college, inexperienced, and tongue-tied) applied in the early 1970s for a job at Commonwealth, Charles unnerved me by looking out of the window during the entire interview. But the way he ran the school was nothing like the averted gaze. Some who knew him well have called him “shy,” but he was a most compelling public speaker. Ironical, anecdotal, imparting wisdom about life’s great questions, his speeches took unpredictable paths and made surprising leaps. Only occasionally, to get his bearings, he glanced at a note in the small red leather book he kept in his pocket. Miraculously in the conclusion all the disparate pieces t together. Written down, these speeches became mere ghosts—their power depended entirely on his living presence and voice. He was intensely engaged in every aspect of the school, from grand to mundane. How did he manage all his commitments in the world at large and still make it his business to run his finger over the woodwork to check if the student duster had shirked his job? After Charles retired, advisors shared the job of writing the letters that accompany each student’s grades and comments—a maximum of eight or nine per advisor can be quite taxing. But Charles wrote them all himself. As school secretary (my first job), one of my duties was, along with Ellen Cole, to take dictation from Charles for most of a Saturday in the silent, empty school. He had tremendous stamina and such vivid recall of each student’s struggles and achievements that in the course of the day he composed impromptu over a hundred letters.
Charles used to leave teachers notes of appreciation in their mailboxes from time to time. When I began to teach English these messages banished the feelings of isolation and self-doubt that can overtake a young teacher. He appreciated things that I thought no one would ever notice—how did he know about them? Though just a few lines usually on a corner torn from a used envelope, these notes from Charles remain precious. Although he tended to think abstractly about literature, favoring philosophical and moral questions, while I was devoted to the close reading that was the English department’s mission, he had a rare gift for respecting a person with whom he didn’t agree. The freedom he gave me to follow my own convictions, even as a novice, seemed like a declaration of faith. He wanted to run a school in which, as he put it, “teachers would grow as colleagues and not remain employees.”
Those years of working for Charles were for me a time of tremendous growth, and his influence carried through my entire working life. It is hard to believe that in the forty-three years I taught at Commonwealth, Charles was headmaster for less than a decade.
Former English and art history teacher
Charles wrote and spoke in vivid anecdotes and ironic turns of phrase. He described himself as “trying to look like an eraser” in tough classes at Deerfield. He invented two representative Commonwealth students, Imogene and Ignatz, whose contrasting, often ludicrous behaviors he described with relish, in order to illustrate desirable and damnable conduct. He spoke of three tiers of students: “gold kids,” “silver kids,” and “zinc kids.” The comical thud of that last category tempered the disapproval it conveyed. Like the paraphrase of “No Roller Skating in the Halls”— “Don’t be a damn fool”—the briskness of Charles’s admonitions implied a certain respect for students, who could be counted on to know what being a damn fool was.
—Mary Kate Bluestein
Former English teacher
Mr. Merrill entered my life in the summer of ’64 while I was working at Camp Lakeside near Northampton, Massachusetts with my brother Arthur, who, years older, was already living on the East Coast. I was invited to interview at Commonwealth and I expressed to Mr. Merrill my dissatisfaction with the quality of education I was receiving in Atascadero, a very small town on the central coast of California, where we had moved the year before. At the local high school, I felt more valued for my basketball skills than for the A’s I earned in classes and as one of a few black families residing there, my five siblings and I felt socially isolated. After the interview, Arthur and I left to drive back to Camp Lakeside. About 8:30 that evening, Charles Merrill called to tell my older brother that I was in. Just like that, life changed in an instant, not only for me as it turned out, but also for three brothers, Michael, Mark, and G.A., and my son, Kemit, all of whom matriculated at Commonwealth. The first-rate education rooted in academic rigor, social consciousness, and decency so changed me and my brothers that we actually think of our lives as B.C. (Before Commonwealth) and A.C. (After Commonwealth).
I would later serve as a teacher there for one year before going to medical school, and my brothers (two physicians and an attorney) and I have served on the Board over the years. My friendship with Charles deepened over time, and I saw him fairly often on his visits to Morehouse and Spelman. Mr. Merrill occupies a very special place in our family, and we think and talk of him a lot. My mother in particular felt a tremendous indebtedness to the man who had opened his school to her sons, thus offering wider educational vistas than the family thought possible. She insisted from the time we graduated from high school that we send $10 to Commonwealth every year even though we were financially strapped college students. Our small contributions grew to much more later, but the debt we owe Mr. Merrill and Commonwealth can never truly be retired.
—Charles S. Finch III, ’66
I have strived for 40 years NOT to be a zinc kid… Thank you, Mr. Merrill.
—Conrad Feininger ’77
When I first entered Commonwealth, Charles Merrill seemed like a curiosity. Wearing his customary suits, pacing around his office with his head bowed, or lecturing those assembled in the lunchroom, he set himself apart from the more casual, approachable faculty members. To enter his darkened office was to cross over into an exalted chamber where mysterious deliberations occurred. His well-documented reluctance to make eye contact reaffirmed that feeling of distance, but he came alive for me when he sprinkled his U.S. History and Bible class lectures with anecdotes from his days as a soldier driving a truck through France, or other impromptu stories from his time in Europe after the war. Suddenly this odd, even crusty, gentleman would light up, his voice and face growing more antic and animated as he brought a past world to life for me and my classmates.
—Joshua Berlin ’82
You made me think, you pushed me to think, and I will never forget you.
—Audrey Thornton ’77
People ask me, “What was your favorite year from your childhood?” Without hesitation, I answer, “My freshman year at Commonwealth.” When I struggled in my classes, Charles Merrill would talk with me as a mentor to a protégé. Over the years, I learned to appreciate the care and concern he had for me. That, as well as many other experiences that year at Commonwealth, made me the person I am today. I regret not having sent a letter to him telling how my life forever changed because he took a chance on a 13-year-old kid from Detroit with sagging white socks and a cheap squash racket. I am forever grateful to him. Thank you, Mr. Merrill.
—Kent Williams ’83
He changed my life immensely by accepting me into the school and financially supporting my being there. Coming from a working class neighborhood into a highly privileged school was a major culture shock for me. My eyes were opened to class and to racism while I was there, and I loved that place despite, or perhaps in part because of, all the challenges I encountered there. It was just 50 years ago this fall that my life was forever changed by the generosity of this man. I am eternally grateful for this experience.
—Liza King ’69
He was one of the greatest persons I have ever known.
—Robert Johnson ’67
I arrived at Commonwealth in 1979 as a “dexter,” teased in junior high for being curious and interested in school. I walked in the door and discovered that there were a lot of other kids like me, interested in burrowing into the details of whatever caught our interest. Commonwealth demanded a lot of its students. I paled when Mr. Merrill’s finger pointed my way for an answer in class, or when I had to meet with him each time grades came out. But he brought all of us together, adults and teenagers, into a very tight community where sharp minds could flourish. He gave us leeway to do things like letting me put on a rogue musical revue. I was a mediocre student, but despite my difficulties, Commonwealth and my teachers taught me how to think; how to take apart a puzzle, understand how the pieces worked, and then put it back together again. This was equally true for Hamlet, the Symphony of Psalms, and mitochondria. It was hard work, and not always happy work, but it was important to me both at the time, and also in how it set the stage for me to succeed as a writer, editor, and communicator, once I figured out it was what I wanted to do. Charles Merrill did so much to shape my life and the lives of many others, and I am terribly sad to think that he is no longer in the world.
—Tristan Davies ’83
When I was a junior at Commonwealth in 2011, Mr. Merrill funded my two-week trip as an exchange student to the school he was affiliated with in Nowy Sacz, Poland. My relationship with Poland was, and continues to be, complicated: I was raised by a single mother and my absent father was Polish. I retained the language, albeit in a childish format; but the language and the cultural elements I kept hold of were tied up in tangled family history.
Mr. Merrill and his wife, Julie, took a chance on me and fully funded my trip to Poland setting me up with a host family there. This process was facilitated by my adviser, Judith Siporin, and by Mr. Wharton; it was with their help that I met with Mr. Merrill and raised the ghost of an idea: what if I went to Poland? Back then my family history felt particularly agonizing to explain to strangers, and I remember bumbling around for explanations. Mr. Merrill and Julie listened. Without qualifications, they gave me the money. The generosity of the gesture surprised me then, and it occurs to me now that not very many would have been so generous in the face of the complicated relationship with Poland I presented. I went on the trip and learned that I was both more and less Polish than I had thought. But the gesture stayed with me: Mr. Merrill was willing to invest, without thought, in a complicated story, and that was precious to me.
—Eva Mooney ’12
Charles was a complicated guy and I’m lucky to have had his friendship. Even luckier to have had him for a teacher. I think I took my writing style from him. What an example he was for living a full life!
—Patricia Woodruff ’68
He was kind to me and believed in me and funded much of my education but made me work hard for it, too. At Commonwealth, I found my voice. And I found friends. Thank you, Mr. Merrill.
—Ann McLellan Lardas ’81
Like so many others, my life was enriched by knowing Mr. Merrill. In ninth grade I struggled both socially and academically. What the outcome would be was far from clear. One day, Mr. Merrill called me into his office and quietly, awkwardly, took an interest. I began to do better. I wanted to justify his interest and live up to his expectation and his example. When he retired he gave me a small picture that I still have. Years later I was a young doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital and bumped into him in the corridor. I tried to tell him what he meant to me, and that I appreciated the interest he took in me as an obnoxious 15-year-old. I’m not sure he knew who I was. Like an Old Testament god, he was inscrutable and mysterious, but I still think about his example of intellectual and moral clarity. I hope he knew what he meant to so many of us, and that it gave him pleasure.
—David Altshuler ’82
When we were teenagers, he introduced us to Homer and to the Bible as literature. We read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. He asked us to imagine a Utopia. He thought deeply, and spoke of ethical responsibility. He let us sleep in the hay in the barn of his farm in New Hampshire. I felt he appreciated the way I thought back then, when I needed intellectual friends so badly. I can hear his voice in my ear.
—Judy Raiffa ’73
You might say that Commonwealth gave me access to a different world. This is possible only if someone who already lives there opens a door for you, and Mr. Merrill did this for many of us—with a flourish.
—Barbara McDonough Gaski ’73
This is the person who imagined, created, and ran the high school I went to. His hands-on work and wide-ranging philanthropy with so many young people bent the arc in a way that will continue far beyond his passing.
—Nick Nyhart ’73
It must have been 1980. I was the “Green Dean,” working for the legendary Amherst College Admission Dean, Ed Wall, and intent on embarking on a career in independent schools. I asked my boss about people who might advise me. He directed me to Mr. Merrill and Commonwealth. What I recall is a conversation in a setting akin to an educational alchemist’s laboratory, a place where something precious was being forged. I recall how Mr. Merrill charmed and inspired me with the requisite answer to my question about the “No roller skating” rule. More than 35 years later, in a career entirely in independent schools, I found myself back on Commonwealth Avenue visiting the school to assess its proposal for a grant from a foundation I lead. I am pleased to say that the spirit of the school Mr. Merrill founded continues to thrive in this walled garden.
—John C. Gulla
Executive Director of the Edward E. Ford Foundation
A bit about this wildly interesting man. Charles's act ran counter to many currents of the time: he located the school in the heart of a city, and he determined that it would be coeducational, decidedly intellectual, and committed to including students from underserved communities, particularly African Americans. The problems that Charles targeted in founding Commonwealth—persistent ethnic and socioeconomic discrimination, anti-intellectualism in American public life, and gender inequities—persist today, and Commonwealth remains committed to his vision of making available to young people from all backgrounds an education that will turn out sharp, informed, and generous leaders committed to promoting justice.
—Erika Righter ’96
We always believed that the high school years could be the most powerful in defining character and values. Charles Merrill’s clarity of purpose succeeded in creating positive citizens of the world. They believe in themselves, in what is good, and in their responsibility to make this a better world. Brother Thomas wrote: “We are not really whole until we take on responsibility for others, and for the whole World.” And today’s Commonwealth has well met that amazing challenge and opportunity!
—B.H. Pucker P ’79, GP ’15, ’17
The Boston Globe published an article about Charles Merrill after his death, that read, in part: “Life is one defeat after another’ he said in a farewell graduation speech at Commonwealth School. ‘The youngest person in this church knows that. But we pick ourselves up, we regroup, we try to learn from our mistakes, we test ourselves and the friends who stand by us...We are always ninth-graders shaking our fist at the silent sky and demanding that life be fair. We do the best we can with the job that has to be done and we have a good time.” Well, if ever the influence of Commonwealth on me was in question....
—Zach Beigun ’04
I grew to appreciate Mr. Merrill rather as I did my own father; he was rarely wrong about anything, even if he was not always pleasantly right. I also became all the more impressed with Commonwealth School, having started a much smaller organization myself and learned about what it takes to create something in this world. Charles Merrill was a man who influenced many of our young lives quite profoundly. Amidst all the trials, tribulations and rewards, he tipped the scales as an impressive person who did a whole lot for a whole lot of people. That is not something I have seen all that often in my almost seventy years.
—Steven Bloomstein ’66
I loved Mr. Merrill. He was gentle and treated me like an adult, with respect and consideration, even though his history class put the fear of God in me. I loved his vision of the school and his anti-disciplinary stance (I had been to a very rigid boarding school before Commonwealth). I loved that he shared Hancock with us, treating us like a family. I read W.E.B. Du Bois because of him, and am indebted to him for countless other eye-opening intellectual encounters. His respect for Poland has remained with me throughout my life. He showed us humility, dignity, and wisdom, and I always thought of his school not as an institution but as a personal gift.
—Priscilla Hunt ’65
I went to a small private high school in Boston, founded by this amazing man. When I think about a life well lived I think about the impact he made and the legacy he left. My high school experience was unique, transformative, and truly special, and Charles Merrill gets a lot of credit for that. Twice a year we traveled as a school to Hancock, New Hampshire and spent the weekend on his farm. Even though he was “retired” by the time I was there, he was a regular sight on campus, and always had time to talk with us and listen. The impact he has had on the world is beyond measure; his legacy is still unfolding as the school continues to educate and shape the next generation. I am deeply grateful.
—Natasha Lee Kolehmainen ’90
I learned integrity during my time at Morehouse College, and as a Merrill Scholarship recipient at Sophia University in Japan. My most significant lesson on integrity centered on how Mr. Merrill managed a Fall Meeting of the Morehouse Board of Trustees in New York, following a pivotal event that took place during the Spring meeting in Atlanta. The College President, Hugh M. Glosser, Sr., decided to skip over the student members’ items on the agenda and adjourn the meeting early to allow Trustees to get to the airport and other scheduled activities. This proposed action stunned Chairman Merrill. After pausing he struck his forehead with an open palm and reminded the Trustees that this was the first gathering of Trustees since the spring student occupation had occurred and that it was imperative that the elected representatives of the student body be allowed to address the Board. Not a single Board member left and the meeting continued until he adjourned it.
In 1969, I received from Morehouse College, a Merrill Scholarship to study in Spain. In April 1970 my father died unexpectedly, and here I was a Merrill Fellow in Europe needing a high-cost airline ticket to return to the U.S. for the funeral. I did what a 20-year-old might have the courage to do: I wrote Mr. Merrill and shared the circumstances with him. Not only did Mr. Merrill cover the cost of the round trip ticket so that I could attend the funeral, but he and I began to exchange several letters concerning my experiences in Europe, including his reflections on his time in Tito’s Yugoslavia and my experiences in Dubrovnik. Mr. Merrill not only gave, but he also shared. It’s easy to give, but it is magnificent to share.
—Dr. William Berry
Charles Merrill founded a school that gave me the greatest education I have received in my life. Thank you for all your work, Mr. Merrill. Rest easy.
—Will Sanna ’09
From his annual Thanksgiving Assemblies, I remember his presence, his insistence on humility and on the need to challenge ourselves continually, his awareness of how much hardship there was in the world, his self-deprecating jokes, and, finally, his rebellious, almost anarchistic, streak.
—Masha Shpolberg ’06
Mr. Merrill had a real love of Central Europe. He always talked about the imaginary student named Ignatz — a real name in the Austrian school where he taught after the war. He often traveled to Poland and Czechoslovakia and knew many people there. When I told him that I was going to be traveling there on my own as a teenager before the wall came down, he gave me the names of his friends and letters of introduction. I met many wonderful people, some of whom I am friends with to this day, forty years later. I am grateful to him for his encouragement and inspiration.
—Randal Baron ’76
Many of you will remember how Mr. Merrill would point to elicit a response to one of his questions in Bible class; I was so frightened that he would call on me because I was really a shy person then. But he also encouraged, supported, and believed in me before and after I graduated. He gave many of us a chance to nd our voices and be heard.
—Elaine Gibson ’72
Mr. Merrill founded the school I went to and that my mom taught at for forty years; he shaped my family and my intellect in ways that are indescribable. He set a bar of how hard to work, how to cultivate generosity, how to ask moral questions—and say when the answers are unacceptable— and importantly, how to have a thick skin and appreciate irony and a rueful joke. He hired Jonathan Kozol, supported intellectuals including Michael Lomax and Alice Walker, and chaired the board of Morehouse College. Over this last challenging year I have thought so much about the choices he made as he tried to serve his community well. He chose as the school’s symbol the mermaid, the city symbol of Warsaw, and always reminded us: “Poland is not yet lost while we still live.” Indeed. The week before he died, at 97, he joined protests against ascendant right-wingers. Goodbye, CEM; thanks for everything (especially Meg).
—Jen Bluestein ’90
I am among the countless youngsters who benefitted from Commonwealth and from Charles's philanthropy. In the summer of 1970, my mother went on a trip to Peru and spent 12 hours in a train compartment with Charles and James Merrill. They got talking—my mother about her three children, Charles about Commonwealth—and together they decided that if I wanted to, I could spend a year in Boston after graduating, which I did, in the academic year 1973-74. And it was among the most important years of my life: a 17-year-old learning to be independent, not only far from home but a whole ocean away from Europe. I found myself a room, perfected my English, broadened my knowledge of American poetry, learned Spanish and all about American History (taught by Merrill himself) and generally had a good time. I made friends I still have and, in the age of Facebook, am still in contact with.
Without Mr Merrill’s generosity my parents would never have been able to afford that.
—Amata Solf Grenville '74