This summer Richard Lee Merritt's estate donated nearly $2 million to the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library at the University of Montana, an historic gift to his alma mater.
Head of archives and special collections Donna McCrea said it's the biggest gift the library has ever received, but it's also not the first time the 1948 graduate contributed to UM. In his "brief vita," the San Francisco newspaper archivist who studied journalism and English in Missoula shared highlights of his time in Montana and abroad, and his relationship with the library.
The entry from July 1992 shares an anecdote about one contribution: "I drove my VW to the Mansfield loading dock to deliver 357 of my books to Erling Oelz (former director of library services) and Karen Hatcher (former dean) — these were mostly Romance language & foreign language works in translation."
Merritt, who died Dec. 17, loved books and donated more than 1,300 to the library over the years, including a couple of rare ones, according to UM. His vita notes he joined the U.S. Army in 1943 and boarded the "old Queen Elizabeth, then the biggest ship in the world," for Scotland in 1944.
"With floor a bit slippery with vomit and dropped gravy, thousands got fed in that palatial paneled dining room while crystal chandeliers swung on high," Merritt wrote in his vita.
The entry from 1945 tells of one of his rare finds while overseas: "I discovered the great old book shops and bought the Stow Chaucer (1561) in James Thin Bookstore in Edinburgh." He gave that book to the Mansfield Library earlier, "The Woorkes of Geoffrey Chaucer," edited by John Stow, along with an 1866 edition of "The Paradise Lost of John Milton."
At the time he found the Chaucer book, he and a librarian at UM exchanged letters about it, McCrea said. He wrote about the find, and the librarian wrote back letting him know what the book might be worth after doing research.
"Maybe that helped his love of the Mansfield Library," McCrea said.
The donations came with two or three sentences from Merritt, maybe where he found a book or a piece of history about it, McCrea said. He liked learning new things and spoke several different languages, even writing his grocery lists in different languages to keep his mind sharp.
"He really embodied the phrase 'lifelong learning,'" McCrea said. "He was constantly learning, constantly reading, constantly sending us at the library and us at the foundation tidbits of information."
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He earlier created the Gertrude Merritt Memorial Fund, in honor of his late wife, a medical librarian. Together, they bought a Victorian home in San Francisco in 1955, and it served as the beginning of their estate and the $3 million in all the Merritts would contribute to the library.
McCrea said the couple was frugal, shopping at used clothing stores and traveling on a budget, and gaining the ability to donate to support learning.
"We had tiny salaries but quickly paid the mortgages in 3 1/2 years," wrote Merritt, who was born in Missoula. "Savings grew and we bought other houses so I could exploit my growing skills as a maintenance man … I loved to buy and repair old houses & we had lots of them in SF! … "
"We started helping the university library with driblets of money or books."
In a journal entry from 2006, he notes the way another donation to the library came about: "Erling Oelz came to my house in SF with his laptop connected to the Mansfield catalogue. We chose 414 books from my collection to send to Missoula."
The Mansfield Library has experienced deep cuts as UM has struggled with its budget, but McCrea said the money from Merritt isn't intended to backfill earlier decreases. Rather, she said it's to support the needs and activities of archives and special collections.
She said Merritt didn't want recognition while he was alive, but an internship and scholarship will be named after him and support the lifelong love of books.
"It's the biggest gift that the library has ever received, so it's really significant for us in terms of just the acknowledgement of the work that we do," McCrea said. "Of course, he's been planning to give to us for a really long time. It just speaks to the value of libraries in general and particularly to the value of libraries to Richard Merritt."
This story has been corrected to reflect Donna McCrea's name.