Helen Henry Merritt, 88, of DeKalb, Ill., died peacefully Tuesday, May 12, 2009, at home. From humble, Depression-era roots, she overcame obstacles and discrimination to live a life of prodigious achievement as an artist, scholar, author, community activist, preservationist, philanthropist, educator, mentor and friend.
She worked as a ceramicist, creating sculpture and wall hangings, some of which can be seen in public buildings in DeKalb including DeKalb Public Library and Kishwaukee Community Hospital.
The opportunity to live for a year (1954-55) in Japan sparked a lifelong passion for Japanese art. She became an internationally respected scholar of Japanese prints; her book, "Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints," and the companion, "Guide to Japanese Woodblock Prints" are considered essential to any study of the field. Her scholarship and curatorial activities continued well into her older years. "Woodblock Kuchi-e Prints" was published in 2000. She was acknowledged as the "unofficial co-curator" of a show of Hiratsuka prints, which opened at The Art Institute in Chicago on her 81st birthday.
Her artistic contributions continued into her later life as well. For the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of DeKalb, she created a spectacular wall of floor to ceiling panels of clay and stained glass tiles. With the help of many volunteers, the project was four years in the making, and dedicated in 2007.
As a community activist and preservationist, she spearheaded the effort to save the Gurler House, built in 1857, from the wrecking ball, and became the first president of The Gurler Heritage Association. She also was active in preserving and improving the character of the area around the Gurler House. Helen and Jim Merritt purchased the Pond House, which is next to the Gurler House and purchased another at-risk 19th-century home and moved it on a truck to the lot adjacent to the Gurler and the Pond houses. Helen Merritt personally renovated the house at 202 Fisk Ave. when she was 70 years old. In addition, she was active as a design consultant for the city of DeKalb in the construction of architecturally compatible new housing in the adjacent Pond Fisk District. She was also active in the city of DeKalb Main Street project.
With her husband, Jim Merritt, she was an active philanthropist. Helen and Jim Merritt donated to DeKalb County what was to become Merritt Prairie, 40 acres of original prairie, now enjoyed for walking and birding. In addition, the couple established the Helen Merritt Art Scholarship, and endowed a lecture series in philosophy of education, both at Northern Illinois University.
As an educator, she taught art in elementary school, junior high school and high school, and was, for many years, a professor at the School of Art at Northern Illinois University. She received the Distinguished Teacher Award at NIU. She loved to teach and was treasured as a mentor by countless students.
In the last 20 years of her life, she cherished her involvement in a women's book club comprised mostly of women young enough to be her daughters. She was a devoted and beloved friend.
Helen Henry Merritt was born June 15, 1920, in Norfolk, Va.; her parents were Crockett Henry Sr. and Mabel Richards Henry. She attended the University of Hawaii from 1938 to 1940 and graduated with a bachelor's degree from Colby College (Maine) in 1942. She earned a master's in art from Rockford College and the first Master of Fine Arts from Northern Illinois University. In 1958-59, she studied Japanese language at Cambridge University.
She is survived by her husband, Jim Merritt; her daughter, Deborah Merritt Aldrich; her son-in-law, Stephen Aldrich; grandchildren, Noah and Amelia Aldrich; and her brother, Crockett Henry Jr.
The family will receive visitors from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, May 19, at Gurler House, 205 Pine St. in DeKalb. A memorial service will begin at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, May 20, at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of DeKalb at 158 N. Fourth St. Doors will open at 9:30 a.m. and lunch will be available in the UUFD fellowship hall following the service.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be sent to UUFD, with Helen Merritt Sanctuary Fund on the memo line, c/o Kathleen Clark, 519 Normal Road, DeKalb, IL 60115; The Gurler Heritage Association c/o Sharon Dowen, 600 Fox Hollow, DeKalb, IL 60115; or Northern Illinois University, with Helen Merritt Art Scholarship on the memo line, Northern Illinois University, NIU Foundation – Altgeld Hall 134, DeKalb, IL 60115.