Charles A. Merlini (1944-2009)


A massive aneurysm claimed the life of Chuck on Wednesday, August 26, 2009.  His family and friends gathered during the last few hours, after the decision had been made to free him from the mechanical life support systems that had sustained him.  Despite surgical efforts a week earlier, the damage caused by a vascular rupture in his brain was too great.

Chuck and his older brother Bill (of Erieville, NY) were raised in Great Neck on Long Island.  The Merlini home was filled with the loving affection of Chuck’s parents, Angelo and Charlotte, who welcomed many of the boys’ friends.  Chuck excelled as an athlete and scholar at Great Neck Junior and North High schools.  His close friend, Paul Lapidus, describes him as "very impressive: great guy, great student and athlete, incredibly good looking.  Everyone liked him.  He was so obviously good, . . . " that he could get away with things Paul could not.  He was a superstar football player and member of the swim team and one of the best track teams on the Island.

Chuck went on to win an undergraduate degree from Princeton.  He was a religion-philosophy major, and a star cornerback on Princeton’s 1964-65 football team, the university’s last undefeated team.  A teammate, Bruce Gates, introduced him to the "beautiful, smart and popular” Leigh Ross (of Palm Beach, Fla.) in 1963.  The two immediately fell in love and were inseparable.  They married in 1964 and settled on Pine Street in the heart of Princeton. Richard was born at the end of the year.

Chuck started on a football team that was nationally ranked and won Ivy League Championships.  He was a critical factor in the team’s success, not only as someone willing to make high speed impact with opponents, but also as a spirited embodiment of what is good in college athletics: he was a good sport, taking defeat and victory with equanimity; he gave every practice and every game complete effort - nothing less; he encouraged teammates; he studied his opponents carefully and used his extraordinary understanding of the game to great advantage; he was determined to win by the rules; he shared his knowledge with everyone, including those with whom he competed (successfully) for a starting role; he did not let injuries stand in his way and fought adversity vengefully; and, he earned the admiration and respect of every player, coach, and staff person who was fortunate enough to know him.

Those traits were not left on the football field.  Chuck was a scholar.  Not too many football players, then or now, are religion – philosophy majors, and at Princeton, a bridged major required special faculty attention.  It took great determination to earn a degree in this unusual major.  What made him stand apart was his introspection.  He was analytical and he applied his skills to a level of self-awareness few achieve.  He could be very serious about ideas and dissect complex notions, but he never strayed too far from laughter.  His success as a student and as a friend was helped along by a hearty sense of humor in a good natured and naturally good man.  Chuck was genuine and sincere above all.  He had well worn smile lines on his face and a twinkle in his eye that made you suspect he might be planning something to make you giggle.

After graduation, he and Leigh moved to Cambridge and he earned an MBA at Harvard.  Kate was born there in 1967.  During the years at Harvard, he began to have some doubts about the pursuit of material wealth, but kept these thoughts close to the vest.

In 1968, he became an account manager at Foote Cone & Belding in Manhattan, and he and Leigh moved to Westchester County.  Chuck was assigned to the General Foods account, where his outstanding work caused the company to hire him away and assign him to the new products division.  For six years, he worked on developing the market for a vegetable form of bacon.  General Foods offered him an executive career path that would have quickly moved him up the corporate ladder, and he was offered a substantial salary increase.  Chuck asked himself if his purpose in life was to pursue such endeavors, figured it out with Leigh, and quit.

They sold their home and moved to South Salem, New York.  Chuck had half of the equation: he knew what he did not want to do for the remainder of his days.  It took a few years to figure out the other half, how to express himself joyfully in his work.  During that phase of his life, he learned the real estate business developing a condominium project in the Berkshires, and achieved a level of success that might have lured others to stay with it.  Not Chuck.  Shortly after the project was completed, he and Leigh decided to move their family to the Ross farm at Stevens Glen in Richmond, which became their home for the balance of his life.

There, Chuck made up his mind to align his working life with his developing sense of who he was.  As a developer, he had hired Tom Farley’s landscaping company.  Shortly after settling in his new home, he asked Tom if he had any work.  Assuming Chuck was asking for someone else, Tom was dumbfounded that his former client wanted to work on one of his landscaping crews. Thus began a relationship of twenty-two years in which both prospered, in considerably different ways.

As grounded a human being as has ever walked the earth, Chuck blossomed working with his hands in the soil of the Berkshires.  This continued until the day he died.  Chuck worked as a crew member side by side with folks many years his junior, who probably never knew he was an Ivy Leaguer. The widowed mother of two of them, Roni Barrett, remembers Chuck as the father her sons never had.  When he picked them up in the early morning, he would honk once.  To be sure these teenagers were out of bed, she would say to them, "You’ve been Chucked.”  Then, during the years of working together, "Mr. Merlini” showed them by example.  When obstacles frustrated them, he was there, with his friendly mini-sledge, "the Persuader”, and they got the job done. Gently guiding them to accomplish goals – and become men.

Using his incredibly strong arms and back, coupled with his Grandfather, Caesar’s, earth-caressing fingers, Chuck moved the unmovable, beautifying homes and parks.  There he discovered himself and a peace one can only envy.  Considering his educational and professional pedigree, this took enormous courage; but, of course, he had it.

He and Leigh spent the next thirty years imbedding themselves in and endearing themselves to the community. During that time, Chuck developed long-lasting relations with his neighbors and maintained old relationships.  Ingrid Richardson, a Stevens Glen neighbor, remembers that all the neighbors loved Chuck.  If any snow removal, towing, or other chores were required, they knew whom to call.

In this life, he focused on the essentials, joy in being disentangled from things and the pursuit of manna, and pride in doing an honest day’s work.  He went to great efforts to make things grow, and he told Leigh that when his time came, he wanted his ashes to be mixed with the soil nurturing his plants and his favorite tree.  If you visit their home, check out the tomatoes.  Leigh will show you the tree.

When you were lucky enough to be Chuck’s friend, you had his complete attention.  His memory was long and the slot into which you fit in that vulnerable brain of his was not erased until the end.  He could recall things you might have said to him many years earlier.  For those who knew him, Chuck’s attentiveness was a privilege.  If you asked Chuck for advice, it was given willingly.  But only rarely did he volunteer it.  He had boundaries, and if you were lucky enough to be within you had an incredible ally.  It gave you comfort knowing he was much more than a friend.  He was on your team, and your back was covered.  When troubled friends called him, he listened and offered more than solace because he had more to offer.  He was a man of action and he helped the troubled compile a practical to do list.

Chuck would be the first to insist that the seminal event in his life was his marriage to Leigh.  She was the sun at the center of his universe, and the family rotated largely in orbit around her.  Leigh, in no small part, contributed to his successful search for his core values.  She cleared the way for him to find himself.  When you witnessed how they interacted, it might have appeared that he was the driving force in choosing such an unusual path, but it would not have been possible without her endorsement.   Their’s was an unconditional commitment of love for one another that lasted every day of their marriage.  The profound love they shared was proven by genuine sacrifice.  They set aside customary spousal demands to make each other happy.  The two of them met many challenges together, as all long term marrieds inevitably do.  The solutions were always rooted in their core values and number one was their commitment to each other and to Richard and Kate.

Those two were recipients of blessings beyond number.  Chuck was an attentive parent, not afraid of discipline, but always supportive of their individual freedom. He listened to them and responded with understanding, at times in the face of real tests of parental will.   He urged them to find themselves as he had.  He followed them to Europe, the Caribbean and elsewhere to help them on their own journeys of self discovery.  His love for them was unremitting, as unconditional as his love for Leigh.  His work choice was in no small measure a function of wanting to be there for them.  When Richard went off to Atlanta and Kate to Nantucket, he missed them terribly, but he understood they were doing what he had done.  It was clear they had learned his lessons.

Chuck confronted issues of death with remarkable clarity.  If he were given the choice, he said, he wanted the end to be quick. That wish was granted the morning of August 19th, when he felt ill, got in his truck and drove almost an hour home to Leigh.  The aneurysm was having an immediate effect, and one would like to imagine that a less determined man might not have had one final glimpse of his beloved.  Not Chuck.  He made it to Stevens Glen and willed his truck up the knoll to their home.  Leigh yelled to him and he yelled back.  When she reached him, he collapsed and never regained consciousness.  Quick; without prelude; unburdened and, true to the way he lived his life, without being a burden.

On August 31, 2009, in Atlanta, Richard Merlini’s wife, Laura, gave birth to Charles Lawrence Merlini, just five days after his grandfather’s passing.  Chuck was looking forward to the arrival of his first grandson.  He is also survived by granddaughter Anna, aged 3, and Kate and Gordon of Nantucket.

9/14/09, Rich Reinis

November 21, 2009, Report from Chuck's memorial service by Rich Reinis

On Saturday, November 14, a group of alumni from the ‘60’s gathered in the Russell Kerstetter Room in Marx Hall to remember Chuck Merlini.  Ron Landeck organized the event, and Bert Kerstetter provided access to a beautiful 3rd floor room that honors his dad. 66ers included John Edie, Kit Mill, Stas Maliszewski, John Cashdollar, Jim Stoops, Charlie Gogolak, Bud D'Avella, Bob Nahas, Carl Eastwick, and Rich Reinis; Marty Eichelberger and Dave Martin from '67, Doug Tufts, Lynn Sutcliffe, and Roy Pizzarella '65, Hugh McMillan, Dick Springs and Jim Rockenbach '64.  Memories of Chuck and of each other brought out laughter and tears in equal measure. The absence of pretense, something so Merlini-like, opened us up.  It was impossible to leave the room without feeling both a sense of loss and of pride in the brotherhood built 45 years ago.  As Landeck put it, "Everyone had something to say from the heart.  I was emotionally spent for the day by mid-morning.  There was an enormous amount of love that was shared in that short span."

The photo shows Rich wearing a pin with Chuck's #12; this pin was made especially for the memorial service.