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May 5, 2003

Merrill College gets reacquainted with benefactor

By Louise Donahue

It's been nearly 35 years since Charles Merrill Jr. helped make UCSC's Merrill College a reality, but time hasn't diminished his enthusiasm.

Charles E. Merrill, right, visits with Jonathan Fox, center, and Frank Andrews during a luncheon at the Merrill College Provost's House.
Charles Merrill called Merrill College "a force for hope, for faith." All Photos: Victor Schiffrin, UCSC Photo Services

"Of all our different investments, Merrill College was the most appealing and rewarding," Merrill said at an April 26 luncheon in his honor at the Merrill College Provost's House. "It's a real privilege for me to come back here and see what you have created."

Merrill was chairman of the board of the Charles E. Merrill Trust, which donated the funds in the 1968-69 academic year to make Merrill College possible. The trust was established with funds from the estate of his father, who founded the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm and Safeway Stores.

Displaying a wry sense of humor, Merrill introduced himself to the lunch gathering as the person who was named after Merrill College. He noted that it was nice to be in a place where he didn't have to spell his name.

Turning serious, Merrill took his listeners back to the turbulent 1960s, and the reasons UCSC formed residential colleges within the overall campus, patterning itself after English higher education. Frustration, alienation, and violent student revolts got some people in California thinking about alternatives to the large "anthill style" university, Merrill explained. The idea at UCSC was to create smaller living-and-learning units with an individual personality--"not just the unit where people park their shoes," he said.

Education reform and concern for the poor have been lifelong concerns for Merrill, a Harvard graduate. He founded the innovative Commonwealth School in Boston in 1958 and served as its headmaster until 1981. One of his books, The Walled Garden, is a history of his years at the school. Among his students was Jonathan Fox, professor of Latin American and Latino studies at Merrill College.

The school, said Fox, was based on mutual respect between students and teachers. "It was different from seeing students as an amorphous mass moving through a pipeline," he recalled.

Through the years, Merrill College has remained committed to its founding goals of concern about poverty and oppression throughout the world, Provost John Schechter said. "Our concern has been to encourage a consciousness of larger issues in the broader community."

A committed internationalist, Merrill said he has been discouraged about recent international events, and particularly the way the United States is viewed by many Muslims around the world. Merrill College, though, is "a force for hope, for faith," he said. Merrill also noted how impressed he was when he sat in on a rehearsal of The Marriage of Figaro earlier in the day at the invitation of UCSC Orchestra conductor Nicole Paiemont, a professor of music. "You have the sense of people believing in where they are and what they're doing, in what is really a very cynical time."

Later, Merrill took on the role of teacher, as he questioned a group of 15 Merrill students--he prefers to call them "customers"--in Merrill College's Baobab Lounge.

After offering his opinion that studying computers promotes cleverness rather than intellectual depth, the next student called upon happened to be studying computer science. "Does it give you a quick but superficial intelligence?" Merrill asked, before catching himself. "That's an unfair question," he added.

A World War II veteran--he served in the Army in Italy from D-Day to the end of the war--Merrill shared his concern with students about where the United States is headed. After World War II, the United States rebuilt Europe, including the nations it had fought against, he noted. "There are not many countries that would have done that," he said. But he added, "I'm not sure what we have as Americans today that we can be proud of."

Merrill, who has homes in Boston and New Hampshire, has visited UCSC before, but not recently. He was in the region for the birthday of his daughter, San Francisco sculptor Catherine Merrill.

In addition to arranging the original Merrill Trust gift, Merrill has personally supported the campus over the years. This year, he provided aid to the Latin American and Latino Studies Department, housed at Merrill College.

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