Jim Merritt, 97, died peacefully Monday, Dec. 20, 2010, at his home in DeKalb, Ill. From humble depression era roots, he became a self-made man, well-known for his warmhearted generosity and engagement with community affairs and the world of ideas.
His career as an educator began at the age of 18, when he got a job teaching a class of 55 fifth-graders to support his Depression-stricken parents. For the next 14 years, he continued to teach and also served as a school principal, while simultaneously pursuing his own education. His conviction that a more enlightened philosophy of education would have helped him to be a more effective young teacher, led to a life long passion for philosophy of education.
In 1948, along with his wife, Helen Merritt, and their young daughter, Deborah, he settled in DeKalb and went to work for what was then Northern Illinois State Teacher's College, initially as director of Elementary School Student Teaching, and subsequently as professor of education and area chairman for the Area of History and Philosophy of Education.
With his wife, Helen, he was an active philanthropist. In 2009, they received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the NIU Foundation. The couple endowed an annual Award for Distinguished Service in Philosophy of Education as well as the Helen Merritt Art Scholarship, both at NIU. They made a substantial gift to Hope Haven, and donated to DeKalb County what was to become Merritt Prairie, 40 acres of original prairie now enjoyed for walking and birding.
The couple also was active in preserving the Gurler House, and because they wanted to protect the surrounding neighborhood, they purchased the house next door as well as another at-risk 19th-century house nearby.
Fifty years ago, Jim Merritt was a founding member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of DeKalb. He served the Fellowship in various capacities including three terms as president. At age 67, when he retired from NIU, he pursued a deeper involvement with Unitarianism by enrolling in the Meadville Lombard Theological School, from which he received the degree of Master of Divinity. Subsequently, he was frequently called upon by friends and acquaintances to celebrate marriages, the birth of babies and memorial services.
James Willis Merritt was born July 25, 1913, in Dundalk, Md. His parents were Enoch Warfield Merritt and Addie Fisher Merritt. He graduated from Maryland State Normal school in 1931 and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in education from Johns Hopkins University in 1943. He enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve and served in Makalapa, near Pearl Harbor, from 1944-1945. In 1946, he married Helen Virginia Henry. He received a master's in education from Harvard in 1947, and a Doctor of Education from Harvard in 1951. In 1954-55, he received a Fulbright Fellowship for teaching in Tokyo, Japan. In 1956, he joined the (continental) Philosophy of Education Society, a membership which remained active for the rest of his life.
He was a democratic precinct committeeman and vigorously exercised his first amendment rights with countless letters to the editor, often engaging in long-running debates with other letter writers. He was a voracious reader who relished the opportunity to compare notes with other readers.
He was active in the Men's Club at Oakcrest Retirement Center for more than 25 years.
He cherished his community and was a devoted and beloved husband, father, grandfather, and friend.
He is survived by his daughter, Deborah Merritt Aldrich; his son-in-law, Stephen Aldrich; grandchildren, Noah and Amelia Aldrich; and his niece, Beverly Connolly.
The memorial service will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 15, at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of DeKalb, 158 N. Fourth St. Lunch will be available in the UUFD fellowship hall following the service.
Memorial donations may be sent to the Northern Illinois Foundation and designated for the Philosophy of Education Fund. The mailing address is Northern Illinois University, NIU Foundation, 1425 W. Lincoln Highway, DeKalb, IL 60115.
Published by Daily Chronicle from Jan. 10 to Jan. 11, 2011.