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Paying it forward: Investing in students who embody service and leadership

Chuck and Kay met in the second grade in Forest Grove, Oregon. They married in 1962; a year later Chuck earned bachelor’s degree in botany at OSU. As an undergraduate, he conducted summer research supported by grants from the National Science Foundation. It was a path Chuck thought would define his career.

The Merrills moved to Ithaca, New York, where Chuck began a master’s program in plant pathology at Cornell University while Kay taught elementary school. It was there that Chuck discovered his love of teaching and chose it over research. In the fall of 1966, he began his career as an instructor and then was promoted to professor, teaching science all the while at the State University of New York (SUNY) Cobleskill campus. Chuck was recognized with the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

The Merrills’ two children, daughter Lisa and son Tony, were born there before the family moved back to Oregon in 1977 so Chuck could join his father in the land development business. Upon his father’s death, he took over the family business and formed the Aloha Land and Cattle Company with the help of two business partners.

“Thanks to a booming economy in Washington County that lasted longer than we thought it would, we found ourselves in a positon to contribute to causes we were passionate about in ways that would really make a difference,” said Kay.

“We were really blessed by how easily we had our college education paid for,” said Kay reflecting back to her and Chuck’s college years.

In 1996, Kay and Chuck established the Merrill Family Foundation (MFF) with a single scholarship program at the SUNY-Cobleskill. Today it supports scholarship programs at SUNY-Delhi which began with seven scholarships in the late 1990s and has grown to more than 200 scholarships between both campuses. In 2004, the MFF established the OSU College of Science program which supports more science students than any other scholarship. To date, the Foundation has granted more than $1 million for 544 scholarship awards.

The Merrill Family Foundation has been the single most impactful scholarship in the College of Science.

In November, the College of Science will award the Merrill Family Foundation its 2017 Distinguished Service Award, recognizing distinguished service of alumni or friends of the College.

“It is such an honor to be recognized. I am really very humbled by all of this. We were fortunate to be born into families with strong support and love, and then to be so financially successful, giving back is just doing our part,” said Kay.

“We are delighted to accept this award on behalf of the Foundation, which has been a wonderful way to share a strong spirit of giving and service across generations, a tradition that continues through our family,” she added.

Kay Merrill of the Merrill Family Foundation

Cheryl Thompson Merrill, Tony Merrill, son-in-law Lee Sickler (BS, Geosciences ’90), and her daughter Lisa Merrill Sickler all take an active role in managing the philanthropic organization that is focused on academic scholarships and recovery programs for women with children.

MFF Scholarships support promising junior and senior undergraduates in the College of Science as well as students in botany and plant pathology and geoscience. Students not only have to be academically high achieving, but they must also demonstrate community service and leadership.

“Chuck read every application, looking for community service first, then leadership, then GPA, in that order,” said Kay.

She recalls his desire to help students who were helping others without receiving monetary compensation or who were skilled at getting people to cooperate within a group.

Over the years, scholarship recipients have included committee chairs, tutors, club officers, volunteers, charity organizers, 4-H youth leaders among others. Many are “tied to the land and farm life and know about helping their neighbors and always have,” explains Kay.

Kay and Chuck enjoyed getting to know the students through their applications and later in person.

“We shared our philosophy of philanthropy and the merits of it with them. We learned why they came to college, what their backgrounds were, their dreams and plans for the future. Many want to be in charge, manage or lead, whether it is a plant conservatory or their own business.”

When the Merrills reached the point in their lives when they didn’t need more financially, they searched for ways to give back. They spent a year attending seminars before deciding to establish a family foundation. The Merrills realized they were very mission-conscious and wanted to do things that would make a difference. They learned that to make a big impact, it was good to pick one or two things that you’re passionate about and contribute to those.

Chuck, Kay and their daughter Lisa were teachers with a love of the profession and saw how it transformed lives. As a result, the family decided to support education and get engaged in the selection process so they could get to know the students they were helping, to see first-hand the impact they were making and to try and inspire students to pay it forward when their turn came.

“Chuck always told students—every student—‘We give you financial aid and you are going to make the world a better place for our grandchildren.’ He really liked the idea of paying it forward,” recollected Kay. “I like to ask students what has contributed most to their success. And a lot of them say the hands-on experiences.”

Scholarships offer students the financial support necessary so they can focus on their studies and to participate in life-changing opportunities like research, internships and other experiential learning regardless of their financial means. They can take students from access to success.

Chuck Merrill (’63)

Lee Sickler was a Hunt Scholar as a student in the College of Science. He still has a tattered photo from 1988 with a group of science students receiving the award.

He recalls vividly thinking, “It is amazing that someone who doesn’t even know me is giving me money. The concept of ‘pay it forward’ really stuck with me.”

Lee had always supported OSU through small gifts. One day he asked Chuck if he would consider supporting OSU. In the early 2000s, Chuck began conversations with the university about how he might support science. Through the years the gifts grew until the MFF Scholarships in the College of Science were created in 2004.

The average college debt stands at a staggering $37,000 for graduates of public universities in the United States, a fact that weighs heavily on everyone in the Merrill family.

During the last 25 years, the Merrill Family Foundation has awarded hundreds of scholarships to college students, contributed to Sherwood Voice for the Arts, St. Luke Lutheran Church’s Youth Program, the West Willamette Habitat for Humanity among other organizations. MFF was also instrumental in the construction of the Lifeworks NW Mountaindale Recovery Center, a safe haven for mothers with children who are recovering from alcohol or drug addiction or abusive family situations.

Driven by a deep desire to help those in need, especially women with children, the Merrill family supported the construction of a recovery center for women with children, the LifeWorks NW’s Mountainside Recovery Center outside of Portland. The Center works with women in recovery to build resiliency, develop positive attitudes and address underlying causes that could turn into more serious problems.

“Chuck always repeated the quote ‘You make a living by what you get. But you make a life by what you give,’ ” said Kay. Chuck passed away in September 2016, but his spirit lives on in the generosity of the family foundation, just as he intended, paying it forward and inspiring the next generation of leaders and scientists.

“I do it [now] as much to honor him as I do for the incredible rewards from philanthropy,” said Kay.

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