Not long after earning his doctorate from Yale University, a young Merrill Patterson was invited to join the faculty of Marietta College’s English Department.
In 1934 the young instructor taught in what is now Irvine Hall. By the way his first class went, it was surprising he was able to keep his job.
“The class was prose fiction and I was a little nervous and apparently talking too loud because Mr. (Alsoph) Corwin (1928 graduate and Professor of Chemistry) came upstairs from the library, stood in the doorway and said, ‘Your lecture is coming downstairs! … and slammed the door,” Patterson recalled in an October 1963 interview with The Marietta Times.
It didn’t take long before students nicknamed the young instructor “Dr. Pat” and, within two years, he was promoted to assistant professor. In addition to his teaching duties, he also served as the director of the Players Club, which was the “sponsoring body” for theatre at Marietta, and was the coach of the debate team for years.
Dr. Pat was born on Jan. 27, 1902. He earned an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University, where the College’s 18th president, Dr. Joseph Bruno, taught for 28 years. Dr. Pat worked as a reporter for the local newspaper before leaving to continue his education at Brown and eventually Yale.
Four years after stepping onto campus as a young instructor, Dr. Pat was named the Head of the English Department and, a year after earning that title, was named the Hillyer Professor of English.
For the better portion of Dr. Pat’s early career at Marietta, the College and the nation were in the grips of very hard times. At first, the Great Depression had a stranglehold on the country, making access to higher education very difficult for young people. And then World War II came to the United States on Dec. 7, 1941.
To address the fact that most of Marietta’s students enlisted in the war, leaving enrollment at 179 students, Dr. Pat helped the College attain the 25th College Training Detachment Air Crew by writing to the Pentagon and assisting with the education of the young airmen. When the new arrivals came on campus and began filling up the residence halls, Dr. Pat and his wife, the former Dana Robinson Rymer, whom he married in 1928, welcomed female students to live in their home at 411 Fifth St. The couple had one son, Merrill Reeves Patterson, Jr. ’54, and one adopted daughter, Barbara Singleton Nelson ’50.
But just as Marietta was rebounding from the war, the College faced yet another setback when the 11th president, William Shimer, was asked to leave his post by the Board of Trustees. Once again, Dr. Pat was willing to step into a role that fell well beyond his English teaching duties. After W. Bay Irvine was named the head of the interim administrative committee, Dr. Pat and Professor E.L. Krause were asked to assist on that committee. When Irvine was elected the College’s 12th president, he appointed Dr. Pat as Academic Dean of the Marietta and the Director of the Summer Session. From 1948 on, he was known as Dean Pat.
“Dr. Pat brings to the deanship a broad experience in teaching journalistic work, and since coming to Marietta 14 years ago, an outstanding record of work on the most important faculty committees,” reported the College when announcing Dean Pat’s new appointment. “He is also a talented musician and a speaker much in demand by public audiences.”
As dean, he helped start the adult education program at Marietta and establish the binary engineering programs with Case Western Reserve, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania. In 1950, he, Don Drumm and Professor Harla Ray Eggleston founded Omicron Delta Kappa on campus.
A man of many talents and interests, Dean Pat studied the violin at Troy Conservatory of Music in New York, played violin for the College-Civic Symphonette, and was the Concert Master of The Messiah performance.
Though he had a great deal of administrative duties, Dean Pat continued to teach a small course load in English because he enjoyed being around students.
“From the 1946 homecoming, the first after World War II, until the mid-1980s, this was the moment for Dean Merrill R. Patterson — the mannered, urbane, jocular, master punster, ever-popular “Dean Pat” — to go into his act at the microphone,” wrote Vernon “Dan” McGrew in College’s second history book, In the Various Branches of Useful Knowledge. “This consisted of his dramatic overture signaling that he was about the proclaim the new queen — only to be put on hold by much fumbling for eyeglasses, some confusion over a long scroll, searches in innumerable pockets for the slip of paper and other bumbling. The crowd sat hushed, hanging on his every word, impatient for him to reveal Her Highness but always amused by his sure-fire tease no matter how many times they had watched him do it.”
When the name was finally announced, the crowd reacted with boisterous applause and cheers.
“Dean Pat created a Marietta College tradition from whole cloth. He made an otherwise ordinary event an extraordinary one, delighting audiences for nearly four decades,” McGrew wrote. “He missed only in 1973 and 1974, before concluding in 1985. One year when he couldn’t be in town he got advance information and taped his presentation. It was played over the loudspeaker during the half-time ceremonies.”
This tradition was continued even after he officially retired as dean in 1967 and began serving as the Director of Academic Advising. He retired from Marietta in 1972.
In 1980, the College bestowed its first Merrill Reeves Patterson Medal at Commencement in his honor. It was given to an English major who “has performed meritorious work in English literature, preferably with attention to Shakespeare.”
When Dean Pat died on Sept. 6, 1990, local newspapers featured stories about his contributions to the community and the College.
“He made literature come alive,” said Gertrude Baker, one of his former students.
Lillian Sinclair ’23, who was the longtime registrar at Marietta, remarked: “He was full of energy and lots of ideas … an inspiring man.”
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