Robert B. Merten
April 3,1936 - January 29, 2006
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
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
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
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.
By Michael Rigas