1920 - 2009
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.
Published by Daily Chronicle from May 15 to May 21, 2009.
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10 Entries
I was a student in her class on Japanese art history in the mid 1970's. She has been a frequent patron at NIU's Founders Library where I work. Helen was inspirational in everything she did. She celebrated life as a gift which she generously shared with others.
Cliff Golden
May 21, 2009
Helen's life is certainly one we shall celebrate with great respect and fondness. Such a gentle lady, who along with her husband blessed our communitywith generosity in many ways which shall always be remembered.
Barbara & Tex Sherman
May 19, 2009
I knew Helen and the Merritt family as a neighbor in my younger years and from to time to time later on. She was inspirational as a creative spirit and encouraged my own academic endeavors. Caryl and I send our condolences to Jim and Debbie.

Craig Lloyd, St. Jean Du Doigt, France
Craig Lloyd
May 18, 2009
Dear Jim and Deb - My heartfelt condolences to you and your family on the loss of your wife and mother. I have known and loved Helen since 1982 both through the book club and through Gurler House. She was a gracious presence wherever she went and I will miss her terribly.
Mary Kowalski
May 15, 2009
Dear Jim, Deborah and Family,
Helen changed my life. I am the person I am today because of her. When I first took one of her classes at NIU in 1974, she was my teacher, my sensei. She inspired me. I had the great privilege of traveling to Japan with her and a group of NIU people in 1980. She opened my eyes to new worlds and new ways of thinking about art and life. We kept in touch all these years and she became mentor and friend as well. I love her deeply and am so sorry for your loss. She will always remain a model for life for me.
Denise Laurin
May 15, 2009
Like so many others, I feel very, very fortunate to have met Mrs. Merritt in the last few years. Having recently become deeply interested in Japanese woodblock prints, imagine my surprise when I discovered one of the regular customers at the hardware store where I work was the very scholar who had written the book I was currently reading. After introducing myself to Mrs. Merritt I quickly saw what a knowledgeable, sharing and sweet lady she was. She was always willing to discuss woodblock prints with me and offer me tips on how to create them. I am very, very grateful for having met her. My deepest condolences go out to all her family and friends who I know must miss her greatly.
Alfred Stark
May 15, 2009
Dear Deborah, Jim and Family,
Please accept my deepest sympathy for the loss of your beloved Helen. I am so sorry for your loss. I hope that you are doing okay. I know that she will be greatly missed by all that knew and loved her. Please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers as you go through this very difficult time. May God bless you always.
Karen Harbert, CNA
May 15, 2009
I never was fortunate to have met Helen Merritt, but I was aware of her. I have just read her obituary and am overwhelmed with respect for what this woman accomplished during her life.

She will be missed by the community and my consolences to her family on the loss of an exceptional woman.
Barbara Votaw
May 15, 2009
I feel so fortunate to have known Helen for these past six years. I am so sorry for your loss.
Ann Marie O'Brien
May 15, 2009
Please accept my condolences and allow me to express my deeply felt gratitude that Helen was a part of our family's life. She was a remarkable individual, and has been a role model for me for many years. My best love and prayers to all the family.
Gina Burchard
May 15, 2009
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