Newt Merrill grew up sailing off the coast of New England, and like many who spend time on the water, he worried about the ocean’s health. When he moved from New York to Boston for a banking job in 1991, a family friend suggested he turn his concern into action by becoming involved with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Bit by bit, Merrill said, he was drawn in, fascinated by the work scientists do to study the impacts of ocean pollution, map the sea-floor, or address questions about the changing global climate. “Every time I went down to WHOI for a meeting, I came back having learned something,” he said. “It recharged my batteries.”
Merrill, in turn, donated not only financial support to the Institution, but also his time as a member of the WHOI Board of Trustees. In the past 14 years, he has participated on a half-dozen board committees whose actions have helped raise funds for the construction of the Institution’s newest vessel, Tioga, and two new major laboratories. He also helped direct a capital fund-raising campaign that thus far has netted $160 million.
His involvement reached new heights on May 18, when he was elected chair of the WHOI Board of Trustees.
Merrill takes over as chair during a time of major transition for WHOI, said Tom Nemmers, WHOI director of board relations. The Board of Trustees—along with a committee of WHOI scientists and engineers—is in the process of choosing a new president and di-rector for the Institution. They expect to make an offer to a candidate by fall.
The Institution is also implementing a new strategic plan that seeks more diverse funding sources for oceanographic research—from the state, private individuals, foundations, and corporations—to augment flat traditional federal funding.
“We’re going through a sea change, but we’re also riding a long wave of success,” Merrill told the Trustees at their May meeting. In a later conversation, Merrill gave examples of those successes under the guidance of his predecessor, Jim Moltz, who served as board chair since 1998. Those included a major fund-raising campaign, now in its final phase, which resulted in the largest single donation in WHOI history: $28 million.
Merrill, 67, attended Harvard College and spent much of his career at The Bank of New York. He headed groups handling lending to large corporations, as well as leasing and investment banking activities. He worked three years as a senior executive vice president at the Bank of Boston until 1994, when he returned to The Bank of New York.
He retired in 2004. He and his wife, Polly, a former elementary school teacher, live in New York City and Lyme, Conn. He often sails with his three grown children, including offshore excursions from New England to Bermuda aboard his 42-foot sloop, Finesse.
Dan Stuermer, WHOI vice president of external relations, said Merrill’s energy, commitment to fund-raising and his aptitude for consensus building make him a natural fit as chair. He likened Merrill’s leadership skills to those of a good sea captain.
“He constantly looks around, assesses problems, and keeps things in order,” Stuermer said.