Potter County
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 William Shakespeare.  

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.  
John Rigas, August 22, 2006

A worthy community project

During this year’s Memorial Day ceremonies, I was struck more than ever by the majesty
of the Civil War monument on the Courthouse Square.  Once again, only this time with
heightened appreciation, I marveled at the sight of the Union soldier soaring gracefully
toward Heaven, lifted by an elegantly-shaped column of near-perfect proportions.  I
reflected how extraordinary it was for a small town like Coudersport to have such an
impressive structure gracing its town center.  Yet, while unusual, it is also perfectly fitting.  
Among northern United States counties, Potter County boasted one of the highest
percentages of citizens fighting on the Union side.  The monument is a testament to this
achievement, an enduring memorial to those many soldiers who sacrificed comfort and life
itself to preserve the union and to end slavery.  
Continue Reading
John Rigas, June 2, 2006

Memorial Day 2006

On this past Monday, the 29th, I was honored once again to take in the Memorial Day
Parade and the ceremonies on the Courthouse Square.  The turnout was significantly
smaller than in past years, which probably was due in large part to the sweltering heat.  
As always, the ceremony and speeches were very meaningful.  But the highlight for me
was when a small cub scout—probably no more than six years old—made a special point
of coming up to thank me for helping our country in World War II.  This simple expression
of gratitude touched me deeply; here was living proof, at least four generations later, that
what so many of us had fought for had not been in vain.  I thanked him and hugged him,
though I did not know who he was.  The pleasant memory from this incident has been with
me all week, and I would like his parents to know that because of him this Memorial Day
was very special for one old veteran.