"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." - Theodor Seuss Geisel
Lou Mervis, who built a small scrap business in Danville, IL, into a thriving multi-state industrial leviathan, while also playing key roles as civic leader, philanthropist, political adviser, and chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, died on Sunday, October 8, 2017, of complications from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He will be deeply missed by family, friends, and colleagues.
Though small in stature and understated in demeanor, what his many friends will remember about Lou Mervis is his irrepressibility. There was no friend he wouldn't help with resources or advice, no problem too complicated to tackle, and no cause like education or economic development for which he would fail to step up to the plate.
The fact that Mr. Mervis died of a disease named for a ballplayer is metaphorically fitting. He was a star athlete in his high school days, playing football and baseball. He coached his sons' ball teams and he partnered with one of those sons to buy a Junior A League hockey team. Throughout his last days, he was an avid follower of the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Bears, and Chicago Blackhawks.
Mr. Mervis grew up in Danville and lived there all of his life, raising a family of four sons and a daughter with his wife of 59 years, Sybil. The two met at a Jewish youth leadership function as teenagers and rekindled the friendship after they had graduated from college. Theirs was both a marriage and a philanthropic partnership. As Mervis Industries prospered, Mrs. Mervis would conjure up new and creative ways to put charitable dollars to work, including, but not limited to, the construction of a badly needed Danville library. The Mervises also endowed chairs at his collegiate alma mater.
Lou Mervis was born August 26,1934, in Danville, the son of Isadore and Martha Ann Friedman Mervis. Mr. Mervis' mother nearly died during her 10 lb. son's delivery, but recovered and then some, living well past her 100th birthday.
Mr. Mervis was a Depression-era child and his family felt the full brunt of it. But, like so many during that challenging time, the family persisted.
Lou grew up in two neighborhoods a few blocks apart on North Franklin Street. He recalled the thrill when his Uncle Sam put together a bicycle for him out of parts found at the family scrapyard. Lou was 11 and his 'new' bike gave him the freedom to go play ball all over the north end of Danville, wherever there might be a pick-up game.
His dad was rarely home during the years of World War II, as he was operating a war-essential business. Lou often had to depend on himself. These tough times taught him to be resilient. Male influences were derived from the older boys with whom he played sports. Fortunately, he grew up the best way, hungry to succeed. Watching his father no doubt shaped him to be strong, which led him to become a natural leader.
Bright and loquacious, Mervis graduated from Roselawn Grade School and became a standout at Danville High. He was an honor student who sang in the A Cappella choir and edited sports news for the Maroon and White, the DHS newspaper. In addition, he was an enthusiastic Viking - center and guard for the football team, a wrestler at 147 lbs., and a catcher for the baseball team.
Deciding at the last minute to enroll at Indiana University, he joined the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity and rose to president during his sophomore year. He served with IU's legendary president Herman B Wells on the Board of Aeons and helped him integrate the Bloomington barbershops. Mervis also served as vice president of his junior class, ran for student body president, and participated in everything worth his leadership on campus.
Lou graduated magna cum laude from Indiana University in 1956 with an accounting degree, despite admitting that he rarely attended classes. He went immediately into the armed services, as a second lieutenant in the tank division at Ft. Campbell, Ky.
Having served his country, he returned to Danville to join his ailing father in their family scrap business. Most of their customers were in the Danville area: GM Central Foundry, General Electric, Bohn, Esco and others.
Thanks to his business school education, Lou was interested in expanding the family business, despite his father's reluctance. In fact, he proved to be a natural and successful entrepreneur.
As small family-owned scrap yards across Illinois and western Indiana were offered for sale, Mervis purchased several, expanding his business significantly. He was one of just a few of his generation who stayed in the business their fathers and immigrant grandfathers had begun. He wanted to be his own boss and "do the things I wanted to do in my own community."
He felt an acute responsibility to try to improve the world.
And "do," he did. Because of his four young sons, his primary focus was education. At just 29, he won a seat on the local school board, one of the youngest persons ever elected to the Danville District 118 Board of Education. Serving two terms, he was president of the board when the district went to half-day sessions to force passage of a much-needed school referendum after six failures. He helped settle a potential teachers' strike in 1976. He put the district on a bid basis for goods and services and banking.
Subsequently, at the request of both governors Thompson and Edgar, Mervis served 17 years on the Illinois State Board of Education, several as chairman. He later served as education task force chair for the Illinois Business Roundtable.
Lou's proudest achievement in our local community was the guiding hand he provided to create a strong economic development unit for his city - the Danville Area Economic Development Corporation, now known as Vermilion Advantage. A founding member, he served as president and as a constant advisor to Vicki Haugen, the current president and CEO.
Thanks to his steadfast vision for a greater Danville, Mervis repurposed many of the area's abandoned buildings and businesses. Examples include the re-use of the C&EI shops for the area's major scrap yard, former Lynch School as corporate offices for Mervis Industries, the Grape Creek Brickyard as the landfill, Asphalt Co. of America as the Mervis garage, the Meis store into a shopping center, the Jewel-Eisner store into Carle Clinic, Eureka Printing plant into Illini Castings, Windbreaker building into viable businesses, Robintech's abandoned plant into Mervis Metals. He played a significant role in bringing numerous plants and businesses to the area, including Alcoa, Fiberteq, Illini Castings, Sygma, Vermilion Transmodal, Foodmaker, and AutoZone. Thus, some of the reasons why Mervis Innovation Business Park has been so designated.
During these years, Mervis continued to expand his family's scrapyard. Today, as Mervis Industries is still based in Danville, it is one of the largest family-owned scrap processing companies in the U.S., comprised of 18 divisions and six affiliated companies in 11 cities in the U.S. Mervis served as C.E.O. and chairman of the board.
As a community leader, Lou joined the Jaycees when he returned to Danville to establish his home. Subsequently, he served as chair of the city zoning board, president and campaign chair of the Danville United Way, vice president of Lakeview Hospital and chair of the regional board for Provena Hospitals in central Illinois. He was a member of the building committee for the Mervis unit of the local Boys and Girls Club.
He served as a director of the Old National Bank from 1985 until 2004 and as president of the Chicago chapter of the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel.
Lou was active on the political scene for years, supporting the candidates in whom he could believe, no matter what their party affiliation.
Lou was also a man who understood the connections between business and life. In 1995 he purchased the local ice hockey team, renaming it the Danville Wings. He established it as a Junior A youth hockey team and helped develop it into the most outstanding Junior A hockey program in America, to which many young talented players sought membership because of the team's stellar reputation. The Wings sent more than 260 young men to colleges and universities on scholarships as Division 1 players. The team won the North American Hockey League community service award for four consecutive years - more than any other team.
He was generous and supportive of our community in ways too numerous to mention. With former Chancellor Richard Herman, for example, he made the initial gift to fund Illinois Promise, a program to help minority and first-in-the-family college students graduate from the University of Illinois without debt.
His family has provided 92 scholarships to DACC students over the years.
He and his wife Sybil funded several initiatives at Mervis' alma mater. They established the chair in Jewish Culture and the Arts in the Robert and Sandra Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University, his beloved alma mater. In addition, he has funded four scholarships in the Borns program. A scholarship at the Kelley School of Business was funded in his name, as a gift from his children.
Lou was awarded many honors over the years, including being chosen Danville's First Citizen in 1978 at age 44. He and his wife are the only husband-wife team to be so honored. He received the Jaycees Distinguished Service Award and was recognized by the National Association of State School Boards as one of three outstanding school board members in the United States. The Mervises were honored by the Danville District 118 School Foundation in 2002. As a couple, they were inducted into the first Vermilion County Business Hall of Fame in 2012, as Founders at the Danville Area Community College Founders Day in 2013, and were awarded the IU Foundation President's Medallion by Indiana University in May 2013.
In May 2017 Lou was one of two leaders to be awarded the first honorary Associate degree from Danville Area Community College for his service to the success of the college.
Known for his integrity, community-minded selflessness, and tireless, passionate commitment to this area, Lou was a leader sought by many who wanted to emulate and learn from him.
Consequently, he was always available as a sounding board for those who needed to figure out knotty community problems. When asked to describe their father, his children used these adjectives: community-minded, brilliant, caring, passionate, engaged, principled, committed, energetic, selfless, tireless, and humble.
Mervis' pleasures in life were enjoying his family, being a proud alumnus of Indiana University, watching the Chicago Bears, listening to classical music, and relaxing in the quietude of Riverbend, his home in the countryside. He enjoyed tennis with his favorite partners, Coach Paul Shebby and Bill Stuebe.
Lou was a member of Congregation Anshe Knesset Israel in Danville for 80 years until it closed; Congregation Shaarey Tefila in Carmel, Ind., and the Standard Club in Chicago.
Lou was married to the former Sybil Stern in Bloomington, Ill., on August 10, 1958. They had four sons and a daughter: Adam married to Laurel Kroack, Phillip married to Sheryl Facktor, Michael married to Julie Weisfeld, Joshua married to Lynn Eicken, and Ellen married to Liam Tully. In addition, they helped raise three others: Jeffrey Cohodes, Pavel Nejezchleb, and Carla DuChene.
Surviving "Papa" are 12 outstanding grandchildren who are already starting to follow Mervis' example in leadership: Alec, Devon, and Audra from the union of Adam and Laurel; Isaac, Joseph, Sam and Gabriel from the union of Michael and Julie; and Zoe, Gideon, Solomon, Meira and Camille from the union of Joshua and Lynn. In addition, his sister Jacqueline Mack and her husband Dr. Ted Silberstein survive him.
He was preceded in death by his parents and his older sister Selma Young.
Visitation will be 2-8 p.m. Tuesday, October 10, at Sunset Funeral Home, 3940 N. Vermilion St., in Danville. Parking will be available in the Walmart parking lot during visitation and the service. Shuttle service will be provided by Sunset.
Services will be conducted by Rabbi Barry Marks of Springfield at Ridgeview Baptist Church, 3838 N. Vermilion St., in Danville at 11 a.m. Wednesday, October 11. Burial will follow in the Jewish cemetery at Spring Hill Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Hillel Building Fund at Indiana University, the Endowment Fund for the Boys and Girls Club of Danville or the Danville Symphony Orchestra Foundation.
Published on October 9, 2017