Edward H. Merrin, Trustee Emeritus and Philanthropist, Dies

A devoted Tufts alumnus and generous donor, he was passionate about family and art
Edward and Vivian Merrin standing in an outdoors garden. A devoted Tufts alumnus and generous donor, Merrin was passionate about family and art.
Edward and Vivian Merrin in 2010. “He was one of the most decent, honorable, and generous people I have ever known,” said former president Larry Bacow. Photo: Alonso Nichols
July 14, 2020

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Trustee emeritus Edward H. Merrin, A50, A80P, A82P, A85P, whose devotion to Tufts spanned seventy years and included a landmark gift for financial aid, died at his Westchester County, New York, home on July 1 after a short illness. He was ninety-one.

Motivated by a belief in bettering the world and a lifelong affection for Tufts, he and his late wife Vivian Merrin, A80P, A82P, A85P, were active philanthropists who strengthened all aspects of the university enterprise, including Tufts Hillel, the university art gallery, teaching, and research. In 2005 the Merrins endowed a professorship in the humanities; Enrico Spolaore, an expert in political economy, growth, and global economics, is currently the Seth Merrin Professor.

Merrin made an indelible mark as well when he celebrated his sixtieth reunion in 2010. Inspired by then-president Larry Bacow’s top priority of bolstering financial aid for students in need, and to motivate others to join him in supporting the Beyond Boundaries capital campaign, the Merrins pledged a $30.2 million bequest to establish the Merrin-Bacow Fellows Scholarship Fund.

Sol Gittleman, Gantcher University Professor Emeritus, said the pledge was characteristic of Merrin, who he knew for nearly forty years, beginning when he was provost. 

“Ed was always all in when it came to Tufts,” he said. “For some people, college is a transformational experience. That’s what happened with Ed—that’s why his gratitude never left. Because the memories of the past were so strong, he could remember what Tufts was, and still see what it is and what it will be.”

Trustee emeritus Seth Merrin, A82, said his father was always forward-looking. When he joined Board of Trustees in 1981, “he was proud of everything that [former president] Jean Mayer was doing to transform Tufts into a university of national and international presence. He believed in making it better scholastically, but also more open to the students that couldn’t afford to attend. So he always said he loved asking people for money, because it wasn’t for him. It was for something that he knew was going to do a lot of good.”

Bacow, now president of Harvard University, said Merrin played an instrumental role in helping establish and build a culture of philanthropy at the university.

“He was one of the most decent, honorable, and generous people I have ever known,” he said. “He shared with me that when he joined the board, he made a $10,000 gift to the annual fund. When he learned that his was the only gift of that magnitude made to the annual fund that year, he went to work. Subsequently, the annual fund grew to become a significant source of support for the university.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit said that over his thirty-nine years as director of Tufts Hillel, three generations of the Merrin family were active leaders in Hillel.

“Ed lived and modeled essentially important values: a deep commitment to family, profound generosity, and a commitment to make the world—its institutions and organizations—better places than you found them,” he said.

Trustee emeritus James A. Stern, E72, A07P, H14, former chairman of the Board of Trustees, said Merrin’s approach to life is perhaps best exemplified by a quote from the Talmud inscribed on artwork given to the Merrins in 2010 when they were honored with Tufts’ Presidential Medals: “As my ancestors planted for me before I was born, so do I plant for those who will come after me.”

“Ed embraced the idea of bettering the world,” Stern said. “I think he saw philanthropy as a duty and a calling. It informed his approach to work, to family, and to institutions like Tufts that, in one way or another, help bring forward the best in people.”

Trustee emeritus Nathan Gantcher, A62, H04, and a former chair of the Board of Trustees, first met Merrin in 1982. Merrin and Gittleman visited him hoping for a donation to the university. Gantcher made the gift.

“I thought he was doing exactly what he should be doing and when, the following year, he asked me to be on the board, I said yes,” he said. “I could see how much Ed loved Tufts and his Tufts classmates. Whenever Ed was in Boston, they would all get together, without fail. But that’s the kind of person Ed was—a true mensch.”

“Dad was what they call a collector of people, and of all generations,” added Sam Merrin, A85. “Everybody—a nurse, or an administrator, or a student, or a doctor—he would invite to lunch. At any given lunch, you didn’t know exactly who would be there. The conversation would be just amazing.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Merrin graduated from Tufts in 1950 with a degree in economics and returned to New York to join his father’s jewelry company, where his eye for beauty led to a focus on design. He is credited with creating one of the first fine jewelry direct mail catalogs.

His career as an art dealer of pre-Columbian antiquities began after a customer made an offer to purchase a bowl Merrin had bought on his honeymoon in Mexico, which was being used as a prop in the jewelry store. He was one of the first art dealers to promote pre-Columbian art in the early 1960s through the Edward H. Merrin Gallery on Fifth Avenue.

His greatest accomplishment, said Sam Merrin, was building a “loving, very close family” with Vivian, his wife of sixty-two years. They raised four children in New York: Jeremy, Esther, Seth, and Sam. Jeremy, A80, A16P, A17P, Seth, and Sam graduated from Tufts; more recently, so has another generation of five grandchildren. Merrin was devoted to his extended family, said Sam Merrin. “Like everything else he did, he gave us 110 percent.”

Merrin served on the Board of Trustees from 1981 to 1992 and was active as well on the boards of the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and Lincoln Center Theater.

In addition to his support of Tufts, he helped establish the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and was a loyal supporter of the New York Botanical Gardens. He also made the gift of a chair in medicine at the NYU Langone Health.

Personally, his “real passion,” said Seth Merrin, was art. “Aesthetics was very important to him. He had an eye for beauty and for quality” that led later in life to his efforts as a horticulturist.

That he loved flowers is evident in floral design; his 2011 coffee table book Perfection of the Finite: The Floral Arrangements of Ed Merrin showcases his signature gift for combining eclectic materials such as lotus and kale and seed pods and summer grasses. But most dramatically he brought his new-found passion to bear on the grounds of his country home.

Over three decades, he and Vivian transformed a seven-acre country home into a stunning private garden, featured in books such as The New Garden Paradise: Great Private Gardens of the World.

Like Tufts, in a way, he saw the garden as constantly evolving, as his invitation to the public during Garden Conservancy Open Days suggests. He breezes through what’s new in 2020 (Amazonica lilies) and then describes with pride other features worth the trip.

“Our stream garden now has an entrance with 1,500 blue balloon flowers of a delicious blue, and 1,500 red Primula,” he wrote, always with a keen appreciation for beauty. “We have also just redone our cut leaf Japanese maple garden; it is glorious. Plus, much more to see.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.