|Official John Rigas Website
|The Reverend Robert B. Merten
April 3, 1936 - January 29, 2006
Eulogy By Michael Rigas
The term “one of a kind” must have been coined specially for Bob Merten. Anyone who knew
Bob at all would have to agree they never met anyone else even remotely like him. A person
of strong beliefs and strong personality traits, he stood out as a man of stark contrasts.
Endowed with a great intellect, he also enjoyed a healthy appreciation of the absurd, for
example introducing an entire generation of Coudersport teenagers to the word “Gak” and a
host of other “Mertenisms”, and regaling younger children for hours on end with fanciful tales
of “Uncle Zeke the Dwarf.” A devoted student of Wagner operas and other classical
masterpieces, he was also delighted by the unsophisticated magic of Walt Disney musicals and
liked to entertain young and old with corny renditions of popular tunes. Such a perfectionist in
his writing, agonizing for days over a single sentence, he was utterly careless when it came to
dress and appearance. A free thinker in religion and politics, he could be quite conventional in
his approach to prose and musical composition. A passionate advocate of social justice, he
could be surprisingly shrewd in squeezing out the highest interest rates on investments. A
champion of change in so many aspects of life, he resisted the use of commonplace modern
tools like computers and compact discs. A loyal friend to youth and its ideals, he was just as
committed to the old and feeble.
Bob was blessed with a remarkable mind. He had an amazing ability to memorize entire
sections of the Bible, Shakespeare, and lengthy hymns and poems. His knowledge of music
and composers was uncanny, as was his ability to play any melody on the piano or organ by
ear. The audio tapes he made for me and others on composers and their works were
wonderful learning tools, small classics in their own right. An occasional poet and author
himself, one of his cleverest pieces was the humorous “Shakespeare on Watergate,”
assembled in the 1970’s as a commentary on the Watergate scandal entirely in the words of
Bob brought his learning, imagination, and idealism to Coudersport in the 1960’s, a turbulent
decade when old norms and certainties no longer seemed to apply. In characteristic Merten
fashion, he enthusiastically endorsed the causes of the day and befriended Coudersport youth
struggling to navigate their way through this new and unsettled environment. Others are much
better able than I to tell this story, but I do remember clearly Bob’s resolute courage in the face
of severe criticism from some quarters in the community. He refused to back down from stands
that he thought were right. He insisted on taking actions that he knew would be unpopular, but
that his conscience and his reason nevertheless demanded be taken. For he recognized as
few people do the hard and bitter truth that justice does not always prevail in America, that
power is abused, that the innocent too often do fall prey to a government that manipulates and
deceives. He understood acutely what he often called “the tragic dimension of life.” He knew
instinctively that in this country, the self-proclaimed “land of the free”, freedom is only safe if
authority is constantly questioned and sometimes vigorously challenged.
Bob left Coudersport for a period in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but a deep and abiding love for the
town and its people remained in his heart. He may have grown up in New Jersey and lived in
other locations, but it was Coudersport which exerted a hold on him, the place which as an
adult he called home. I remember his telling me once how excited he was the first time he
returned to Coudersport after moving away. I have often speculated that this town’s romantic
pull on Bob came as a result of the battles he fought and the close relationships he developed
here during the intense decade of the 1960’s.
Bob’s opportunity to return to Coudersport came in 1987. John Rigas had always admired Bob
for what he considered to be his creative genius, his special way with the young, his genuine
empathy with the elderly, and his keen interest in music, philosophy, and politics. Each of the
Rigas children had been members of Bob’s Starlight Circle, an organization consisting of high
school students and patients residing in the extended care wing of Charles Cole Hospital.
Both patients and students served as officers of the organization. Our meetings were held
each Sunday night. We would play games, recite poetry, sing songs, and eat snacks. Careful
minutes were kept. Bob was never more engaged or contented. Our parents were
enormously impressed by this successful example of love in action, both by how it stimulated
the patients, making their lives brighter and happier, and by what it taught us about
compassion and service.
And so when John Rigas sensed that Bob’s talents were not being put to good use in Ohio, he
approached Bob about the possibility of joining Adelphia. Surprisingly, Bob was hesitant at
first. He questioned my father closely about what he would be doing and how he could help
the organization. When told that he had a great deal to contribute to both the company and
the community, and that he would have the leeway to suggest projects, he promised to think
about it. It was only after another phone call, more persuasion, and the further assurance that
he would not be asked to do something he did not believe in that Bob finally agreed to come
back to Coudersport.
My father had his own concern. He cautioned Bob about becoming embroiled in controversies
that might put the company in a bad light. Convinced that Bob understood, my father relaxed.
Less than a month later, however, the manager of a local restaurant telephoned to say that
Bob had just made an embarrassing scene in the restaurant. With Halloween approaching,
the restaurant had displayed a fake dead man in a casket, something that Bob considered to
be in poor taste and entirely inappropriate for a public setting. He let the manager know his
feelings in no uncertain terms. The manager, in turn, let Mr. Rigas know how she felt about
Bob’s return to Coudersport. A few days later, another call came into John Rigas from another
establishment in town, complaining about a loud argument Bob had had with a local attorney,
in the course of which he was heard to use some rather strong language for a minister. It soon
became apparent, in short, that Bob and controversy were inseparable, and that no amount of
lecturing was ever going to stop him from speaking out against something he thought was
wrong. He could no more restrain himself in these situations than he could cease caring for
the elderly; it was simply not a part of his nature.
More than a few people wondered why Bob Merten was working at Adelphia at all. A typical
picture of Bob at work—pants soiled and wrinkled, collar up and bloody from shaving cuts, hair
tousled, a cadaverous figure darting distractedly in and out of offices—hardly fit the image
most people had of corporate life. And then they would ask, “Why was Bob Merten at Sweden
Valley Manor in the middle of the day?” “Why in God’s name was he at the historical society?”
Why was he taking trips to visit Margaret Sutton? Why indeed was he expounding on the
wonders of “Der Meister Singer” in the office of the Executive Vice President of Operations?
What did any of these things have to do with Adelphia’s core business?
The answers are simple and direct, if not obvious to everyone. A corporation, like an
individual, has an obligation to the larger community around it. Adelphia in those years strove
to be this good corporate citizen, and not merely a company focused on the bottom line. To so
many of us, Bob in his essence epitomized the aspiration for the higher elements in life, the
things of beauty and refinement and spiritual discernment. In his unique way, he became part
of Adelphia’s grand endeavor in these days to reach for these higher things in a corporate
setting. He was a gift to Adelphia employees and to the area, a resource rich in talent and
knowledge and spirit, upon which people and institutions in an isolated rural setting could draw
for growth and inspiration.
And Bob did his part to fulfill this vision; he did make solid contributions. He helped preserve
the heritage of Coudersport and Potter County, completing comprehensive research projects
on the Coudersport Theater, the Old Hickory, and Margaret Sutton. He found and compiled
for public use the works of Potter County poets, the History of Coudersport by C. B. Larrabie,
and the original Judy Bolton books authored by Margaret Sutton. He was the impetus behind a
calendar which combined the scenic beauty of Potter County with the linguistic beauty of its
poets. He played the piano and organ at countless events, both inside and outside of
Adelphia, including the company’s annual Christmas concerts. He quietly identified people
within the community who had special needs which the resources of Adelphia and the Rigases
could help. Offering his assistance one evening at the Coudersport Theater, he soon became
a mainstay there, doing everything from disciplining children to recording the phone
messages. He engaged many, many people, young and old, in lively conversation, helping
them to expand their horizons and prompting them to re-evaluate their basic assumptions.
My father understood Bob’s fiercely independent nature and his artistic temperament.
Incapable of functioning in any kind of structured environment, in order to be productive, he
had to be given wide latitude to undertake the projects he liked. But when he did find
something that suited his talents and interests, no one could be more concentrated, more
determined, or more thorough.
I, like so many here today, will keep vivid memories of Bob throughout my life. To be sure, he
could be exasperatingly out of sync with the world around him, as when he would poke his
head into my office on a particularly busy day to plead his case for smaller coffee cups or to
get my signature on a $10 T and E form. But he could also be an exemplary good sport,
joyfully poking fun at himself, as on the cold December day when he donned tights and a thin
Santa Clause jacket and sported a green face as the Grinch on an Adelphia float. Most of all, I
will remember his many kindnesses to me—his sincere interest in whatever I wrote, his many
attempts to have me learn more about classical music and opera, his readiness on short notice
to make Rotary presentations, and his willingness to share with me his many creations and his
deepest convictions. Yes, a Bob Merten emerges only once, and we were all blessed that this
unusual life force emerged when he did and where he did to touch us in a special way.