Obituaries

Charles Merrill Jr., 97, educator who founded Commonwealth School

Mr. Merrill offered tuition aid to those from underserved populations.
Mr. Merrill offered tuition aid to those from underserved populations.

If Charles Merrill had been a little more successful in an early attempt at becoming a writer, the Commonwealth School in Boston might never have opened.

“We all suffer from our own flaws of character: mine at one time was writing novels,” he wrote in “The Walled Garden,” a 1982 memoir about the school and his unusual life.

He was teaching at a private school in St. Louis when he moved to Paris in 1955 and “set out to be an author,’’ he wrote. “Two unpublished years later, I was grinding my way through a short story when my 14-year-old daughter came by to ask me to explain a poem by Emily Dickinson.”

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The encounter, and the lesson he offered to his daughter, reminded him of the pleasures he had found at the front of a classroom. It was “a message from Above,” he wrote. “I would leave the poisoned chocolates of Literature and return to Teaching.”

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Mr. Merrill, a son and heir to the founder of the Merrill Lynch wealth management company, died in Nowy Sacz, Poland. He was 97 and also had a home in Boston, the Associated Press reported. The Commonwealth School said in an online posting that he died Wednesday.

Mr. Merrill founded the Commonwealth School in the Back Bay in 1958 and ran it until retiring in 1981. He enrolled girls and boys, and the school offered tuition aid to those from underserved populations. Mr. Merrill advocated for integration in the years before court-ordered desegregation was a flashpoint for Boston’s public schools. In 1983, he told the Globe that the best way to teach was to “see where the zeitgeist is going and then head in the opposite direction.”

He also believed in determination. “If you want to accomplish something — to play a Beethoven sonata, to sew two severed nerves together, to nurse a sick child, to manage an infantry battalion, to organize a neighborhood — you have to have the skill, you have to have the will. You must be ready to pay the price,” he wrote in his memoir. “In taking on a task that is tougher than you think you can handle, you learn the depth of your resources.”

Mr. Merrill favored metaphors to illustrate his ideas, and “one metaphor I used for the school was that of a walled garden,” he wrote.

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“A teacher plants and weeds and prunes,” he continued. “He decides what is a weed and what is a flower and works with what he has been given. He has a sense of time, what one can expect and cannot within a growing season.”

He added that “what one generation of gardeners was able to do depended on what their grandfathers had done,” and indeed he was able to launch the school in no small part because his father founded Merrill Lynch and owned a supermarket chain.

“I enjoyed the undeserved chance to draw upon the money that my father had given me before he died, the profits from Merrill Lynch & Co. on Wall Street and the Safeway Stores in California, and for that reason some of what I write about the Commonwealth may be of limited relevance to other schools,” he noted. “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

Charles E. Merrill Jr. was the son of Charles E. Merrill Sr. and the former Elizabeth Church, and grew up in New Jersey and New York City. He wrote that he was 5 when his parents divorced. Mr. Merrill’s sister, Doris Merrill Magowan, became a prominent philanthropist in San Francisco and died in 2001.

His younger half-brother from his father’s second marriage, to the former Hellen Ingram, was James Merrill, who grew up to become one of the 20th century’s most significant poets. James was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 and died in 1995.

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“As it happened, my father had taken a much earlier step to ensure his children’s independence, by creating an unbreakable trust in each of our names,” James wrote in “A Different Person,” a 1993 memoir. “Thus at 5 years old I was rich, and would hold my own purse strings when I came of age, whether I liked it or not. I wasn’t sure I did like it.”

Charles Merrill Jr. went to Deerfield Academy and to Harvard College, where he took time away during World War II before returning to graduate. Initially, he worked in Mississippi “for a cooperative farm run on Christian Socialist principles.” After Pearl Harbor was attacked, he served in the military, including during the invasion of southern Italy.

Injured in battle by a shell fragment, Mr. Merrill recalled feeling vulnerable as he lay injured on the ground. “I remember a sad process of trying to bargain with God,” he wrote. “If He kept me from getting killed, I would never ask anything of life. I would become a patient postal clerk and be grateful for each day. The Germans stopped firing. I, however, went back on my end of the agreement.”

When the war ended, he finished at Harvard and taught in St. Louis for a few years. After the writing sojourn in Paris, he moved to Boston and founded the Commonwealth School in buildings he described as “a huge decaying rabbit warren” on the corner of Dartmouth Street and Commonwealth Avenue “because it had a lot of space and a stained glass window in the room that would be my office.”

In “The Walled Garden: The Story of a School,” Mr. Merrill alluded to the sometimes fraught relationship he had with his father when he wrote: “If my best preparation as a teacher was to have been a poor mathematician, my best preparation as a counselor was to have gotten along badly with my father: I knew something about the misery and self-destructiveness that an adolescent’s family life can entail.”

In 1941, Mr. Merrill married Mary Klohr, a scholar, researcher, and tapestry weaver who died in 1999. According to the Commonwealth School, Mr. Merrill’s survivors include Julie Boudreau, his wife of seven years.

Complete information about other survivors and a memorial service were not available. The AP reported that a farewell ceremony was to be held in Nowy Sacz, and that Mr. Merrill would be buried in the United States.

“I loved my job. Every day I would look forward to going to work. I loved the teaching,” Mr. Merrill told the Globe in 1983 as he discussed his time running the Commonwealth School. He later served as a trustee for other colleges, and went on to publish some of the fiction that had proven such a challenge in Paris.

“Life is one defeat after another,” he said in a farewell graduation speech at the 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.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.