Philanthropist Charles Merrill says ties to Czech Republic stretch back almost seven decades

Charles Merrill, photo: Martina Stejskalova

Charles Merrill is an American philanthropist who has devoted his life to education, and one project close to his heart is a programme of scholarships for Czech students. In fact, he has spent USD 7 million sending over 200 young Czechs from Palacky University in Olomouc to colleges in the US. Recently Mr Merrill, who is 86 years old, was thanked for his great generosity by the Czech foreign minister, who presented him with a special award. When I spoke to Charles Merrill, he explained that his ties to this country go way back.

Charles Merrill, photo: Martina Stejskalova
"When I was a boy of 18 and a first year student at Harvard University I came to Prague, because I was always fascinated by Czech and Polish history. My father loved to travel, but his Europe was London and Paris, Venice and Rome. I was a difficult teenager and I said, my Europe is Prague and Warsaw."

What year was that, when you first came? And what are your strongest memories of your first visit?

"Thirty-nine. It was when the Germans had taken over the Sudetenland. There was the pressure both of their total domination of Czechoslovakia and the coming of the war. I came here...my guess is in early August of 1939 - just before the war."

What was the atmosphere like here in those days?

"It was the sense that the world was about to be overwhelmed."

After the war you maintained ties with Czechoslovakia?

"I was married by then and my wife and I came to the...world that was dominated by the communists. We made trip after trip - I think we must have made five to six journeys here when it was under communist control. It was fascinating to see how much of the Czech spirit existed, despite all the memories of the German pressure, and the communist pressure."

After the fall of communism you set up the Czechoslovak and Polish Education Project - why those two particular countries?

"No, fundamentally it was Czech. Every so often I had Polish friends and I would raise money for an individual scholarship. But for the Czechs it was a group. It was 14 men and women going to nine different American colleges. That started in 1990 and still exists to today."

What are you hoping students get from the experience of studying in America?

Photo: European Commission
"Well, it was interesting...women in the Czech world are not as important as men; therefore nobody cares about their education. Therefore in this programme I gave scholarships to 150 women and 72 men."

Do you think the women get more out of it than the men might?

"Men are more wrapped up in the tight, intense pressure for their career; science, law, medicine, humanities. Women have the freedom to experiment."

Charles Merrill's father, Charles E. Merrill, was the founder of the company that eventually became the financial services giant Merrill Lynch.