Merton G. Henry ’50, P’80, P’82, H’84 (1926-2018)

April 9, 2018 by Office of the President

To the Bowdoin community,​

With the passing of Trustee Emeritus Merton G. Henry of the Class of 1950 on Friday evening, April 6, at the age of ninety-two, Bowdoin and Maine have lost a great friend, advocate, and leader.

Mert Henry was born on February 4, 1926, in the Penobscot Valley town of Hampden, Maine. His path to college began in a two-room schoolhouse in West Hampden and passed through South Portland High School. He was admitted to Bowdoin but was unable to enroll immediately because he was inducted into the Army in the summer of 1944. 

Mert served in the US Army in the Philippines from 1944 to 1946 and was the youngest first sergeant serving in the Western Pacific theater. Later, during the Korean Conflict, he returned to Army service from 1950 to 1953, as a first lieutenant and historian in Washington, DC, where he coauthored History of Military Mobilization in the United States Army, 1775-1945.

Two years after he had been accepted, Mert entered Bowdoin, becoming the first member of his family to attend college. Mert thrived academically and socially at the College. He was president of the Debate Council, the Political Forum, and the Student Council. He was also president of the Independents until his junior year, when he joined Alpha Delta Phi fraternity. He won the Achorn Debate Prize and was awarded the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Cup as that member of the three lower classes “whose vision, humanity, and courage have most contributed to making Bowdoin a better college.” Mert graduated magna cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

During his sophomore year, he volunteered as the Cumberland County coordinator for Margaret Chase Smith’s 1948 US Senate campaign. Mert’s passion for political engagement as a way to improve people’s lives remained undiminished in his life, during his career in law, and in his enduring commitment to serve the common good. In the following years, he worked on congressional, senate, gubernatorial, and presidential campaigns. He was a delegate to several Republican National Conventions, serving on the Rules Committee in 1980. He was chair of the Maine State Republican Convention in 1980 and chair of the Executive Committee of the Maine Republican State Committee from 1978 to1982. His gift of the Merton G. Henry Political Papers to Bowdoin’s George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives preserves a record of nearly seventy years of his engagement with Republican politics in Maine and the nation.

The opportunity to serve as executive secretary and legislative counsel to US Senator Frederick Payne (R-ME) from 1953 to 1958 gave him valuable experience in national politics. It also allowed him to earn a degree from the George Washington School of Law in 1955 and to meet Harriet R. Putnam, a fellow law student. They were married in 1954.

In 1959, Mert and Harriet returned to Maine with their growing family. Mert became a founding partner at the Portland law firm now known as Jensen Baird Gardner & Henry; since 1992, he had been “of counsel” there. He was past president of the Cumberland Bar Association and the New England Bar Association, and he was a member of the Maine State and Federal Bar Associations and a fellow of the American Bar Association. He was elected to the American College of Probate Counsel and as a fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, and he was founder and former chairman of the Maine Council of School Board Attorneys. In the 1980s his was an important voice in the establishment of the Maine Bar Foundation, the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, and Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA)—all important initiatives to ensure access to legal resources for those who could not otherwise afford it. In 2004, he and Harriet were co-chairs for a fundraising appeal—The Campaign for Justice—to support the work of six legal aid providers in Maine. In 2006, Mert received the eleventh Muskie Access to Justice Award to honor his “…commitment to the public good, advanced through hard thinking, deep feeling, a voice of eloquent civility, and passion for justice.”

One cannot write about Mert’s legal accomplishments and contributions to society without mentioning Harriet’s as well; they supported each other in their respective legal careers and in their selfless service to their community and state. In 1973, Harriet was appointed the first woman in Maine to hold the position of judge. Bowdoin honored Mert and Harriet with honorary degrees in 1984. In addition to his honorary degree from Bowdoin, he received honorary degrees from Northwood University in Michigan in 1988 and from St. Joseph’s College in Maine in 1996.

A partial list of Mert’s volunteer work shows the breadth and depth of his contributions to society. He was a member and chair of the Portland School Committee; a director and president of Child and Family Services; a trustee and president of Maine Medical Center; a trustee of North Yarmouth Academy, Colby-Bates-Bowdoin Public Television, the Tate Museum, the Scarborough Public Library Corporation, the Portland Museum of Art, Hospice of Southern Maine, the Cumberland County Recreational Center, and the Margaret Chase Smith Library; president of the Alpha Delta Phi Association and the Bowdoin Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa; moderator of the Standish Town Meeting for a decade; a member of the Dirigo Health Commission, the Portland Charter Review Committee, and the Maine Special Commission on Governmental Restructuring; and an active member of the Trinity Episcopal Church and Episcopal Diocese of Maine since 1959. Mert was also a member of the board of Maine Life Care Retirement Community, Inc., which created the Piper Shores retirement community in Scarborough, where he was living at the time of his death.

Mert attributed much of his success in life to his Bowdoin education and to the professors and administrators who encouraged him, and he repaid the College many times over with his service. While he was in law school, he was the secretary of the Bowdoin Club of Washington. He was a member of the Alumni Council from 1959 to 1961. He was elected to the Board of Overseers in 1962 and to the Board of Trustees in 1974. After twenty-five years dedicated to the governance of the College, he was elected trustee emeritus in 1987, saying at the time that it was “…time for the next generation to put its shoulder to the wheel to assure that the brightness of the Bowdoin sun never fades.”

He worked with President Coles, Acting President Daggett, President Howell, President Enteman, and President Greason during a period of great change—coeducation, expansion, SAT-optional admissions policies, shifting curriculum requirements and grading systems, three capital campaigns, and the transformation of the campus landscape (physically and socially). Mert took on a number of significant challenges during his tenure on the board. He chaired a Special Board Committee on Athletics in 1971-1972 to recommend changes required by coeducation, and in 1980, he chaired an ad hoc Committee on Governance to reform the College’s bylaws. He was elected the first chair of the board of trustees under the new structure, and he led a Committee on Fraternities in 1987-1988 that explored the legal, administrative, and social challenges inherent in the system as it had evolved at Bowdoin. Although he had left the board, he was asked to serve on the New Century Campaign Steering Committee and the planning for the College’s bicentennial celebration in 1994. Mert and Harriet and members of their family established the Henry Family Library Fund in 1987.

For his outstanding record of service to Bowdoin, Mert was presented with the Polar Bear Award by the Alumni Association of New York (1983), the 1991 Distinguished Friend of Education Award from CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) District I, and the Alumni Service Award in 1994. For many in the Bowdoin community, what made Mert so special was his thoughtfulness in sending handwritten notes of sympathy, encouragement, and congratulations to members of the Class of 1950, which he served faithfully for more than thirty years as class secretary; to faculty, staff, and administrators for their good work for the College that he loved so dearly; and to the many people he met through his volunteer efforts.

Mert was predeceased by his beloved Harriet in 2004. He is survived by his sons, Donald P. Henry (Mary) and Douglas M. Henry ’80 (Laura); his daughter, Martha S. Henry ’82 (Mark Lamphier); and several grandchildren. A funeral service will be held on Saturday, April 14, at 11:00 a.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland (580 Forest Avenue). 

Mert was a valued adviser to seven Bowdoin presidents, including me, and it was an honor to know him. We share with his family a deep sense of loss, but also profound gratitude and respect for a life so well lived.