A Life Remembered: Danville business titan always sought ways to give

A Life Remembered: Danville business titan always sought ways to give

DANVILLE — Word of the passing of Danville businessman Lou Mervis rippled through the area and across multiple states Monday as family, friends and colleagues, as well as state and local leaders in business, education and politics, mourned the loss of the man who turned his father's local scrap business into a multi-state company with multiple divisions.

"It's just a sad day for Danville and Vermilion County, and really for the state of Illinois. He has been such a leader in our state, and leadership is needed," said retired Danville Area Community College President Alice Jacobs, who considers Mr. Mervis her greatest mentor during her 17-year tenure. "His kind of leadership is needed in our state and our nation and our region as well."

The 83-year-old Danville native and owner of Mervis Industries whose fingerprints can be found on a multitude of local economic development and philanthropic endeavors was not only respected as a businessman but also as a humanitarian who, along with Sybil, his wife of 59 years, generously supported many community causes, especially in education and the Jewish community.

Mr. Mervis died Sunday after a battle with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Visitation will be from 2 to 8 p.m. today at Sunset Funeral Home and Cremation Center, 3940 N. Vermilion St., Danville, with a funeral service at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Ridgeview Baptist Church, 3838 N. Vermilion St.

Former Gov. Jim Edgar said Monday that he lost a very good friend, recalling how he met Mr. Mervis on the campaign trail in 1974 while in his first political race for the state legislature. Edgar, who lost that election, said when you lose, you don't have as many friends, but you have a debt, and Mr. Mervis was one of two people who sent him a letter of encouragement and a check.

"I knew then I had a good friend," said Edgar, who last visited Mr. Mervis in August. Edgar said it was difficult for his friend to speak, but the two still had good, lively discussion on current politics. He said Mr. Mervis had read the New York Times that day, and still knew exactly what was going on.

"Lou was always up to date on anything," he said.

That included education.

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A 1956 magna cum laude graduate of Indiana University in accounting, Mr. Mervis was a lifelong proponent of education. He was elected to the Danville school board at age 29, serving two terms, including as president, and served on the state board of education for 17 years. The Mervises have generously supported many educational programs and projects as well as individual students, both privately and through scholarships, including at Indiana, the UI, DACC and others.

Those who knew him well and have been privy to his many philanthropic endeavors are quick to say that he never wanted attention for his generosity.

"He never boasted about his charitable gifts," said Champaign developer Peter Fox, who has known Mr. Mervis since the 1980s and served on his company's board of directors. Agendas for all company meetings always included which charitable causes the company should support, Fox said, adding that Mr. Mervis was also very fair and charitable to employees, offering help if there was a health issue or family need.

Giving "was really more important to him rather than how much money he made," Fox said. "He wanted to make money — that's a measure of success — but it gave his family the means to make charitable gifts and support other causes."

Former UI Chancellor Richard Herman recalled how his good friend didn't hesitate to support the Illinois Promise program in 2004.

"One of the great humans is gone. He did so much for so many people," said Herman, who didn't know Mr. Mervis that well when he asked him to support Illinois Promise, a program still in existence at the UI that helps low-income students. The Mervises offered the first donation, $250,000.

"He saw an opportunity to help out people," said Herman, who explained that the Mervises had already been offering financial help for college to low-income kids in the Danville area. He said Mr. Mervis also encouraged other eventual donors to support Illinois Promise, which boasts 350 students today.

"When you are in the presence of a good human being, you know it. It was just a pleasure for me and my wife to be able to spend time with Sybil and Lou," Herman said. "Wonderful, wonderful people. I think his legacy is enormous."

Jacobs said the college had two major campaigns while she was president and the Mervises provided lead gifts both times. She said education was important to both Lou and Sybil.

"It's always Lou and Sybil. When you thought of Lou, you thought of Sybil," she said, adding that they valued education and saw it as a way to help people improve their lives. "It's what our society needs, I believe, is a highly educated population, and in Lou Mervis, I know that he valued education for all of the citizens of this county."

While governor, Edgar appointed Mr. Mervis to his second stint on the state board of education, as chairman. Mr. Mervis told The News-Gazette at that time that what convinced him to accept the appointment was a guarantee from Edgar that he could be his own man.

"I don't want a job where someone says, 'This is what I want you to do.' I'm not built that way," Mr. Mervis told The N-G in early 1997.

"Nobody told Lou Mervis what to do or what to think," Edgar recalled Monday with a laugh, adding that those were the kind of people he liked to appoint. "I wanted people who knew more about the subject than I did."

He said he wanted Mr. Mervis because he had a great interest in education, particularly public education, and cared how things worked.

"I always knew while Lou was the chairman, the board was going to do good things," he said. "You couldn't have had a better person to be chairman of it. You knew he was going to put education first."

Born in Danville during the Great Depression, Mr. Mervis did not grow up wealthy, instead dealing with lean times and learning about hard work, which he witnessed first-hand as a boy at Mervis Iron and Metal Co. on Harrison Street, where his father logged 18-hour days at the family scrap business started by Lou's grandfather in Veedersburg, Ind.

"There were guys coming in with push carts or a horse and wagon," Mr. Mervis said in his biography, "Open Mind, Heart and Hand," which Sybil had Richard Weiss write a few years ago. "They were bringing in a little glass and some old tires and rags with bugs and flies. And after helping them unload, you would pay them pennies for what they had struggled all day to gather. You want to learn humility? You learn how tough it was for some people to make a living."

As a youth, Lou played a lot of baseball and football on sandlots around town, and at Danville High, he excelled in the classroom and in football, baseball and wrestling.

Retired Danville Superintendent David Fields was two years behind Mr. Mervis at the high school.

"He showed the same tenacity in football during that time, as he later demonstrated in his business acumen, and certainly in his community involvement," said Fields, who later served on some of same community boards as Mr. Mervis. "I just can't say enough of him and Sybil. He has just been a strong supporter of me and anything I attempted to do in my community service.

"We owe a great deal to Louis, not only for his investment financially, but his time as well, and sometimes, that costs you more than the dollars," said Fields, who also noted how the Mervises provided financial aid to many Danville High graduates. "I can't say enough about his support. He's just a super man, a super person to know."

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Fox said he learned from Mr. Mervis, who skillfully guided a nearly 100-year-old business in a challenging industry through many ups and downs. He said Mr. Mervis was incredibly detail- and action-oriented, paid constant attention to commodity prices, and when faced with a problem, applied all his energy to it, so it wouldn't perpetuate. Fox said he also admired his commitment to his family, his community and the state in general, but he most admired his integrity.

Fox said he was always "scrupulously fair" in ensuring that people who brought in scrap were paid fairly. It's not uncommon in the scrap business for people to get shorted on weight, Fox said.

"It just wasn't the type of person he was," said Fox, explaining that he grew particularly close to Mr. Mervis in the last 15 years, often seeking his advice following the death of his own father.

"Lou never had an agenda. He was happy to talk about anything — politics, sports, business, history. It never really had to be about something, so having a conversation with Lou was pleasant," he said.

Fox described Mr. Mervis as someone who never dressed flashy and had no particular fondness for material things. He had two nice homes but they were set up for family and friends, and he was a gracious host, never showing off his possessions.

"I can't remember him buying anything for himself," Fox said.

Fox said he was not a partisan person in politics, either.

"He supported more Republicans, but he really liked to support people that he thought were going to be honest people, effective," he said. "He wanted people who would pay attention to Vermilion County and Danville, like he was trying to do, and help the economic conditions there."

* * * * *

"His fingerprints are on so many things," said Vicki Haugen, CEO and president of Vermilion Advantage, the economic development agency in Danville that owes its existence to Mr. Mervis, who supported its creation when Danville fell on hard times in the 1980s.

His vision, Haugen said, was to take action rather than sit back and watch things happen.

Since then, she said he played a role, either directly or indirectly, in helping recruit myriad businesses and companies to the area. He was also involved in the redevelopment of many properties, like the former Lynch School as corporate offices for Mervis Industries, the Jewel-Eisner store into Carle Clinic, and the Eureka Printing plant into Illini Castings and more.

Haugen said just one example of his recruitment efforts is Fiberteq, which in the 1990s needed about 15 acres of a 100-acre property owned by someone who didn't want to subdivide it. Mr. Mervis bought the property and subdivided it.

"So he took a risk to make it happen," said Haugen, explaining that Mr. Mervis has worked behind the scenes for decades to make many other projects happen, like Strapak, where he again bought property to ensure a new business would come here.

She said he profited in some instances, but not always, and in some situations, the return on his investment took so long that he was never fully reimbursed.

Calling him an iron man who became a father figure to her after her own father passed away, Haugen said he was always there with advice or support when she needed it.

"It's just broken my heart to see someone who's given so much go out this way," she said. "I feel so blessed that he's been part of my life. I don't think I could have done my job without his influence."

Jacobs also credits Mr. Mervis as a professional mentor.

"If I were to name one person who mentored me in Vermilion County, it's Lou Mervis," she said. "Whenever, whenever there were major issues facing the college, I knew that I could go and talk with him and get his tremendous insight and wisdom and support and help. ... He's a very unique individual. I've not met many individuals with the insight and wisdom and knowledge and involvement he has."

* * * * *

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman has known the Mervises since she and her late husband, Gill, arrived in Danville as young attorneys.

"I had heard about Lou Mervis and his great commitment to community and his love of Danville," she said, adding that said she talked to him about her becoming a state supreme court justice.

"And he was very, very supportive and very encouraging that this was something I should do and must do," she said. "I thought he had good judgment. He had a wide range of contacts, and he was interested in good government."

And, she said, he was interested in seeing people succeed in their chosen profession.

"The only thing he ever asked of me was that I do a good job. He never sought any kind of personal gain for himself or his family or anyone he knew," she said.

* * * * *

Mr. Mervis was a member of Congregation Anshe Knesset Israel in Danville for 80 years until it closed and a member of Congregation Shaarey Tefila in Mt. Carmel, Ind. Shaarey Tefila Rabbi Benjamin Sendrow recently devoted a Sunday sermon to him, comparing him to Yankee Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig, from whom ALS got its nickname.

"If there was a Hall of Fame for self-made men, Lou Mervis would be in it. If there was a Hall of Fame for philanthropy, Lou and Sybil Mervis would be in it. If there was a Hall of Fame for supporting Jewish causes, Lou and Sybil would be in it. I loved Lou almost from the moment I met him," said Sendrow, who spent some Sundays with Mr. Mervis after his diagnosis with ALS.

He said Mr. Mervis handled his disease without bitterness.

"First, Lou had every right to be bitter and angry. He had been a good and generous man, a religious man, and there was nothing fair about his disease," he said. "Yet, as I know from his beloved Sybil, from the time he was diagnosed, there was never any anger in him, no bitterness, no sense that he deserved better, although he does deserve much better. Yet Lou accepted his situation with strength and grace."

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