| Home | Dean | History | Journal1 | Journal2 | Innovations | Innovations1 | Connections | Alumni1 | Alumni2 |
EE grad's passion for education
creates a legacy of learning

The day I spoke with Merritt Scoville, he had just returned from Boston, where he spent Thanksgiving with his son, Roger. It had been raining all the way to Glens Falls, N.Y., where he has lived for many years, making the drive somewhat treacherous.“I’m glad to be home,” he said.

I called Mr. Scoville to talk about his years at NU, his long career with General Electric, his thoughts on education, his life. But first we talked about his sons. Roger was born in ’42 (“Was it ’42?” he wonders out loud, then affirms, “Yes, it was ’42”) and runs an investment management business. Roger earned a business degree from the University of Vermont and was the vice president of First National Bank for 20 years. Scoville’s older son, Wayne, was born in 1937 and is vice president of sales for Thomas Electric in Tupelo, Miss. Wayne, a mechanical engineer, graduated from Cornell University. Scoville is very proud of them both. And they obviously are proud of him — when Scoville turned 90, each son wrote a poem extolling Scoville’s many life achievements.

An Original Cornhusker
Merritt Scoville was born in Valparaiso on Nov. 9, 1905, and grew up on farms in the Sumner area. He went to a country school for seven years then to a village school to finish high school. Life was not easy for the Scoville family.

“We lived one day to the next,” he said. “We had diversified farming — livestock, grain for feed and a few chickens to sell.”

With seven children (Scoville was the oldest), they didn’t have much to live on. “We worked daylight to dark — all with horses. We had no electricity, running water or central heat.”

The 1930 electrical engineering graduate bought his first radio in 1924 and didn’t flip on a light switch until his first year at the University of Nebraska. So what prompted his decision to become an engineer? “I was always interested in technology and liked general science in high school,” he said. “I wanted to know more about it.” When he finished high school he took a correspondence course in electricity and became hooked.

His family could not afford to send him to college so Scoville worked his way through school. He waited tables to pay for meals and earned living expenses by working in the university’s drafting and physics lab. He also spent summers working in carpentry, at an electrical plant and husking corn.

“I picked a hundred bushels a day, working with a lantern beside the husking wagon after dark. It was real hard work. I wore out two pairs of gloves a day.” He paused, then added, “So, I’m a real Cornhusker.”

His work experiences taught him a lot. In fact, he said he “learned more from those jobs than some college classes.”

The GE Years
After graduating from NU, Scoville began working for General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y., on a six-month trial basis. Forty-one years later he retired. He married Doris Mignery (BSED, ’29) in 1931 and the two began raising a family in New York. “She was a great help to me in my engineering profession,” he said. “She even traveled with me on business trips to Europe and South Africa.” Mrs. Scoville died in 1980.

Scoville’s career took him from Nebraska to Indiana to New York and Massachusetts and finally back to New York, where he lives today in Glens Falls. He tested motors, generators and other engineering products and managed different departments. He also designed and holds a number of patents on a variety of capacitors — or “pension boxes,” as he likes to call them — which still are used on power lines all over the country and throughout the world. His work in that field also earned him one of the highest honors given by GE. In 1946 he received the General Electric Coffin Award for outstanding contributions to the development and design of water-cooled chemically treated paper di-electric capacitors for high frequency furnaces, which still are produced in large quantities.

The awards and patents are real highlights of his career, he said, but he is most proud of his work with Adirondack Community College, which he helped found in 1960.

As engineering manager for GE in Hudson Falls, N.Y., Scoville found it nearly impossible to hire well-trained technical people. “I had trouble even hiring a secretary,” he said. To get employees “up to speed” in their jobs, GE sent them a few miles away to Schenectady three times a week to attend college classes. It simply was too difficult for the employees — they need training locally.

That’s when Scoville, along with several others in the community, decided there was a need for a two-year community college.

“People asked me ‘Why mess with a two-year school? Why not do a four-year school?’” His answer? “Liberal arts colleges don’t entirely prepare students for work in industry. Community colleges open doors to more people, giving them skills they need to get a job and a lower-cost education.”

A Passion for Education
When Scoville begins talking about education, he becomes passionate. And he is very clear about one thing: college and education are not synonymous. (“We need to stop calling it college and start calling it education,” he stated adamantly at one point in our conversation.) From 1955 to 1970, Scoville served on the Glens Falls’ high school board of education. If he learned anything, it was this: Not everyone is suited to attend a four-year college.

“The trades are essential. High schools educate for the liberal arts, not for work in the real world. That is not satisfactory for everyone who wants to be educated.”

With this in mind, the school board created a program targeting “students who couldn’t cut the mustard in math or English.” In addition to regular classes, students worked with trade merchants in the area. The program was so successful, other high schools in New York adopted it, he said, and today students are learning a variety of trades. “Every student needs education, but not necessarily college as that term applies in this day and age.” Community colleges are key in filling that role.

“There are three things necessary for a successful education,” he said. “Number one, you have to have a student who wants to learn and is capable of learning. Two, you need qualified teachers. And three, you need financial support and good facilities. If we don’t have these three things, we fail.”

To help ensure those criteria are met, Scoville remains actively involved with ACC. He is a member of the foundation board, works closely with educators and the college president and is active in the college foundation, which he started in 1983. He plans to be around for a long time yet. “GE matches my contributions to the college — so long as I’m a member of the board,” he said. Despite his age, he has no plans to quit. Scoville also has contributed to the NU Foundation for more than 25 years. “I want other students to be able to get a college education without debt,” he said.

As testimony to his passion and commitment to education, ACC named a building in his honor: The Scoville Learning Center. Scoville takes great pride in that, too — not because his name is on it, but because of what it symbolizes.

“Years from now, people won’t remember the person, but they will remember the learning part,” he said.

— Constance Walter