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Travis Merritt, professor and undergraduate leader, dies at 71

Travis Merritt
Travis Merritt

Travis R. Merritt, a professor emeritus of literature whose enthusiastic service over four decades at MIT included taking leadership roles as dean for undergraduate academic affairs and director of the Experimental Study Group, died on Sept. 2, from a heart attack following a lengthy illness. He was 71.

"Travis Merritt was a deeply committed professor of literature who ran the Humanities Office for many years where his devotion to Course XXI majors was legion. He was a superb undergraduate mentor," said Philip S. Khoury, Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

Merritt, a native of Plattsburgh, N.Y., came to MIT in 1964. He was an authority on 19th and 20th century literature, with a special interest in the changing role of prose. His book, "Style and Substance," is a teaching text on English prose.

As director of the Humanities Undergraduate Office, Merritt helped establish MIT's current wealth of interdisciplinary programs by supporting new courses that combined humanities with engineering and science. He was fond of saying he believed in "dual literacy"--knowledge of both humanities and science--for all students.

Known for his particular interest in the education and wellbeing of first-year students at MIT, Merritt helped run the freshman advisory program and the annual Independent Activities Period (IAP) and coordinated residence and orientation (R/O) week. He started the Freshman Advisor Seminar series and also played a key role in establishing the Concourse program for freshmen in 1971.

"Travis was a really wonderful and unique person. We spent a lot of enjoyable time together, and he did many things to make MIT a better place. He was deeply and effectively dedicated to our students," said Charles M. Vest, professor of mechanical engineering and president emeritus of MIT.

A devoted teacher and skilled administrator, Merritt is credited in Institute lore with founding "Charm School," the now-famous IAP course that offers light-hearted instruction on proper conduct in social and professional settings.

Peter Donaldson, professor of literature, characterized Merritt's administrative style in directing Charm School activities as "full of high and low comedy and a flair for irony."

Merritt retired as dean of undergraduate affairs in 1996. At the time, he declared, he would spend more time with his family, travel to the Greek Islands and concentrate on his favorite hobby, creating leaded stained glass.

Within the year, he had become director of the Experimental Study Group, bringing his commitment and delight in MIT to yet another generation of students.

Holly Sweet, associate director of the Experimental Study Group, said, "Travis was a great fit for ESG--he was innovative academically, cared deeply about the personal and academic wellbeing of students, and thoroughly enjoyed the small interactive classroom environment of ESG."

Merritt received the B.A. degree in English literature from Williams College in 1955 and the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in English literature from the University of Chicago in 1956 and 1965, respectively.

Merritt's wife Maureen M. (Connolly) died in 1988. He is survived by four daughters, Grace E. Merritt of West Hartford, Conn., Lisa C. Merritt of Lexington; Amy V. Merritt Easton of Concord, and Susannah C. Merritt of Seattle, Wash; three brothers, Richard Merritt of Peekskill, N.Y., David Merritt of Long Lake, N.Y. and Stephen Merritt of Malden: two sisters, Clare Fischer of Wiscasset, Maine and Martha Shugrue of Sudbury; six grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.

Visiting hours will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8 at the Douglass Funeral Home, 51 Worthen Road, Lexington, Mass. For more information, please call Douglass Funeral Home at 781-862-1800.

A memorial service will be held at the MIT Chapel on Saturday, Oct. 1 at 4 p.m.

Donations in Merritt's memory may be made to the Alzheimer's Association, 36 Cameron Ave., Cambridge, MA 02140 or to Habitat For Humanity, 121 Habitat St., Americus, GA 31709.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 14, 2005 (download PDF).

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