January 16, 2021

Old Lyme Says Poignant Farewell to the ‘Ever Thoughtful’ Mervin F. Roberts (Neel Roberts)

The firetruck bearing the coffin of Mervin F. Roberts begins its journey to the Duck River Cemetery. Photo by Gregg Jacobson.

OLD LYME — Mervin F. Roberts, 98, of Old Lyme, who passed away in the early hours of Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020 was laid to rest in a poignant graveside ceremony held Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021 at Duck River Cemetery in Old Lyme.

The Old Lyme Fire Department (OLFD), of which Mr. Roberts had been Chaplain for 50 years, played an integral role in the ceremony, transporting Mr. Roberts’s coffin down Lyme Street with an honor guard in front and a procession of firetrucks behind.

The procession of firetrucks passes the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. Photo by Gregg Jacobson.

This was the eulogy read by Mervin Roberts’s daughter, Martha Delana McNair, at the graveside service for Mr. Roberts. It was written Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020 in Chiang Rai, Thailand, by Mr. Roberts’s son Neel Roberts, who has been with the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF) since 1987. Neel Roberts was unable to attend the ceremony in person due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Donations in Mr. Roberts’s honor can be made to OMF at this link. Neel’s wife, Chalor, works with the tribal Shan community in Mae Sai, Northern Thailand, where they cross over from Myanmar, often destitute after losing their farm and water buffalo to the Burmese military. Chalor uses donations to provide scholarships the children need to enroll in public school. She helps them register for school and buy books and uniforms, while taking nothing for herself since she is supported along with Neel by the OMF.

The firetruck bearing the coffin travels down Lyme Street. Photo by Gerry Graves.

I will not try to summarize an active life of 98 years in 10 minutes. Mervin Francis Roberts, whom I will call Dad for convenience sake, wrote several memoirs for family and friends. If you have come to the funeral, you probably already have a copy or can borrow a copy from someone who has one or two.

The earliest known quote attributable to my dad was, “I’m not Mervin, I’m obnoxious.” When he got older he claimed, “I am all charm.” Strictly speaking both statements demanded some poetic license.

He, like most people was multifaceted. He memorized the periodic table when it only had about 100 elements. In his 90s he could look at a stone or piece of porcelain or a fuel additive or solvent for glue and describe its qualities based on the molecular structure of its parts. This was a man who could count fish and differentiate what species they were as they poured out of the water-cooling discharge pipes at the Connecticut Yankee power plant. As an engineer / naturalist / scientist he was a stickler for details. When it came to personal history, he was a bit of an un-licensed poet.

He was an only child, but he grew up surrounded by cousins whose families were a major part of his life until the very end. He lived on the outskirts of New York City and later spent a fair bit of time under the city when he was chief ceramic inspector for the Port of New York Authority while the Holland Tunnel was being dug.

Alfred University was the university of choice for him. His father’s choice. Evidently, his father made the right choice for him. He learned much about ceramics and the care of horses, and while there he found his future wife, Edith May Foster. It seems that she was not as certain as he was about whether he was Mr. Right but he staked his claim by buying an army surplus jeep for $50 and parking it in front of her parents’ house and thus persuaded the other suitor that she was already claimed.

Together they established a home where love and respect reigned for 60 happy years of marriage. In her old age he would often buy her chocolates. My dad did not spare the rod, but I only saw him fly off the handle once. I once made the mistake of using the words mom and dumb in the same sentence. Very big mistake. Lesson learned.

A smiling Mervin F. Roberts of Old Lyme is pictured here Oct. 31, 2020 at his home in Old Lyme.

Dad was the most unsentimental person I have ever known. Therefore, I hesitate to use the word love in sentences like, “He loved the ocean.” He very much enjoyed the ocean and was especially attracted to those places where the ocean met the land. He was very interested in all the life forms that were to be found along the shore and especially in the marshes. So it was natural that when career choices allowed him to choose a place to call home, Old Lyme became the place. He spent nearly 60 years here. Old Lyme was the perfect setting for him.

It was not only that it was surrounded by water. It was also full of people who had time for people. I almost started to write about his friends and neighbors but realized that would be redundant. He made neighbors into friends. On some occasions he helped them to deal with snapping turtles that were laying eggs in their back yards. On other occasions he blessed them with his home-made snapping turtle stew. The friendships were mutual. When the family that had received the stew moved away 2 years later, they returned the stew to him in its original container.

He placed a high value on volunteerism. At the start of World War II, he volunteered for the Navy and as a reward picked up some friends for life. Years later he became a volunteer fireman and again gained lifelong friends.

For over 50 years he was the chaplain in the Old Lyme Fire Department. For the first 20 or more of those years, he was often one of the first responders, driving one of the trucks and blowing the horn if he passed our house for the benefit of his son, our brother, Billy. If you want to know how to volunteer, you should go up and ask a fireman today. Dad would certainly appreciate that.

Dad was not a politician, nor did he have much interest in politics. He had a great interest in the well-being of the town and therefore gave much time to both appointed and elected roles.

Old Lyme Fire Department (OLFD) Chaplain Mervin Roberts pictured in his OLFD uniform at home in May 2020.

One of his big causes was sewer avoidance.

When he was 91, he was sounding a bit discouraged in his crusade to have each householder take responsibility for his own ground water. I told him that at his age he could pass the baton on to someone else. Seven years later, a few months before his death he was still fighting the good fight for sewer avoidance and Connecticut River oysters that would be safe to eat. So he didn’t take my advice but I am proud of him for the fact.

I should note here that he stuck with the various boards and committees in large part because he had friends who were equally concerned in the community. It was part of his core philosophy which I think he picked up from reading about Ancient Athens: that the well-being of a community is the responsibility of its citizens.

It is to be hoped that at this memorial service this sense of responsibility will not become a mere passing note but might be imparted in fuller measure to all who wish to honor his memory.

He wrote many books about pets and never grew attached to any particular snake, turtle, ferret, lovebird, gerbil or guppy. His key to success in writing and making the photographs for these books was that he showed respect for the experts. Those who knew more than he did would be given due credit in his books and therefore they not only freely shared their own hard-earned knowledge, but also made lasting relation with him as well.

As an author, whether of “The Tidemarsh Guide to Fishes” or of a letter to the editor of a local newspaper regarding some inane behavior of a bureaucrat in a corner office, he never shot from the hip. He thought, wrote a draft, corrected the draft and then always handed it to someone else to check the grammar, content and tone of voice. The final products showed his confidence in his statements precisely because he valued the input of others. On the other hand in a normal conversation where differences of opinion appeared, he might close with “bunkum”, or “you’re all wet” but he never said that until he had given the other party time to express their opinions.

Old Lyme Fire Department Chaplain Mervin Roberts reads what turned out to be his final Homily at the 2020 Memorial Day Service held in Duck River Cemetery.

While Dad was not sentimental, he did love people very intentionally. I never saw him shed a tear. He may have, but I never saw one. Love was a conscious decision and required much thought. And he was ever thoughtful.

In his later years he was involved in charitable activities in India and South America. Here he combined his scientific knowledge with his people skills. His background was aquaculture – the art of raising fish for food. But in some cases, he realized that the expressed need was not the real need. He would take time, days in reading the technical literature, days in contacting experts in other places, days in travel. He knew that a problem like hunger or poverty could not be solved by simply throwing money at it.

One of the last projects he was involved with began as a fish project but in the end, it was changed into a goat project because he as the fish expert, after careful study, came to realize that goats and not fish would help the people of that particular community in Southern India. Even here he did not simply recommend goats. He invested much time in learning how families in that community functioned, what laws existed about grazing animals, and how to address communal issues that delayed the original success of the project.

It was not enough that something had been done for the poor. He stuck with the people who were promoting the project until it became clear that the real people in need were the ones benefiting from it.

Dad had a sense of humor. Growing up in New England I never experienced an earthquake until one day in my teens the windows began to rattle. I rushed downstairs only to discover that my dad was watching a Peter Sellers Pink Panther movie on TV and was laughing so hard that the house shook. He didn’t tell jokes about in-laws but it was not infrequent that he would hear a good joke at the barber shop and come home to make a long-distance call to one of his brothers-in-law so that they could hear it too.

Dad was definitely an evolutionist. His ways of expressing his theology or views about God evolved too. We strongly suspect they have evolved considerably more over the past few days than in all his previous 98 years.

There were however a few core principles in his theology that went back to his college days when he joined the church in Alfred. One was that through prayer the peace of God would guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. I was on several occasions amazed when tragedies struck that he appeared unshaken. He was not unfeeling. He did feel pain but it did not cause him to forget that others needed his strength and clear headedness in the crisis. His heart was guarded. His actions proved that his mind was on how he might help others, be they family, neighbors or even strangers in their times of need.

The second principle which was merely another aspect of the first was expressed at our dinner table several thousand times in prayer. He would often end a mealtime prayer with this phrase, ‘help us to be mindful of the needs of others, around this table, around Old Lyme and around the world.’

It was a prayer that he saw answered in his own life on countless occasions and I believe we are all the beneficiaries of that prayer.

The Old Lyme Fire Department formed an honor guard at the head of the funeral cortege. Photo by A firetruck proudly flying the Stars and Stripes in Mr. Roberts’s honor stands at the entrance to Duck River Cemetery. Photo by Gregg Jacobson.

This is Mr. Roberts’s official obituary:

With his wife, the former Edith May Foster, Mervin Francis Roberts first came to Old Lyme in 1960. He and Edith May became active in church, government, fire department and town life.

Merv was born in New York City in 1922. He was a Naval Officer during WWII. He served in the Navy for four years, and then in the Reserve. He was awarded 4 campaign medals, two with Combat Stars. After his service, he returned to complete a degree in Ceramic Engineering at Alfred University.  He served as a Merchant Marine Officer, Scout Master and Commissioner, Town Shellfish Commissioner, Water Pollution Control Commissioner, Sunday School teacher, Counselor to the Governor of Connecticut for Marine Resources, Selectman of the Town of Old Lyme, Chaplain of the Fire Department and Justice of the Peace. He also was a Consultant of Aquaculture, worldwide, and a Counselor to two bishops in South India, concerning animal husbandry for women to alleviate poverty. For years he was the Tender of the Gate at the Old Lyme Cemetery. He was awarded Town of Old Lyme Citizen of the Year, and American Man of Science, American Legion’s Legionnaire of the Year, 2015-6. He was a teacher and lecturer, gunsmith, inventor, pioneer photographer of high-speed animal movement, waterman, duck hunter, and last but not least, he got his haircut at Seckla’s Old Lyme Barbershop.

Merv wrote 50 books and pamphlets on pets, natural history, and animal husbandry. 

He and Edith raised 6 children: Edith Ann Main, Robin Frances Roberts, Martha Delana McNair, Nancy Jean Briggs, Neel Foster Roberts, and William John Roberts. He is survived by a multitude of beloved nieces and nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

In his words, “Don’t mourn my death but rather celebrate my life for surely I’m glad to have been around.” 1997.

The firetruck bearing the coffin enters Duck River Cemetery. Photo by Gregg Jacobson.

Old Lyme First Selectman Timothy Griswold gave the following tribute to Mr. Roberts exclusively to LymeLine.com:

With the passing of Merv Roberts, Old Lyme has lost one of its most remarkable citizens. He was a Town Citizen of the Year, a Town Selectman, Chaplain of the Old Lyme Fire Department and active in so many other ways.

As his body became more frail, I think his mind became sharper. Just last September, Merv, as a Shellfish Commissioner, wrote a letter to the National Railroad Corp. asking whether any toxic ingredients would be used in the concrete, paint or steel used to build the new railroad bridge over the Connecticut River.  Not bad for a 98-year-old.”

We shall miss his interesting speeches at the Memorial Day Parade observances. I feel privileged to have known Merv and thank him for all he did for Old Lyme.

Mervin Roberts (first from right) attended the funerals of the children murdered Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn.

Michele Dickey of Old Lyme, who was in the same grade as Mr. Roberts’s daughter Martha through their time together at Old Lyme Schools until they graduated together in the Lyme-Old Lyme High School Class of 1970, sent us these personal recollections of the graveside ceremony for Mr. Roberts:

I attended with my husband, Mike; we were joined first by our daughter, then my cousin-in-law, Dorie Smith, who is a friend of Edie’s, and her daughter, Meghan. We were joined for a while by friend Diane Losea Roeder, another classmate of Martha’s and mine, who came down from Northampton, Mass.

Mike noticed the wide range of people in attendance: lots of young people and lots of oldsters as well, many using  canes and walkers or requiring some assistance, even elderly fire fighters on the arms of friends. 

A firetruck proudly flying the Stars and Stripes in Mr. Roberts’s honor stands at the entrance to Duck River Cemetery. Photo by Gregg Jacobson.

 It was significant that a ladder truck with a huge American flag suspended from its raised ladder was outside the gate of Duck River Cemetery, where Merv acted as “gatekeeper” for many years and has since passed the torch to son-in-law, Ken Main. (Should you ever get locked in after dark, as we did just last week, don’t worry—the gate is held closed by a bungee cord, not a chain and padlock.)

Shortly after we gathered at the grave site, a color guard entered, followed by family members in front of the fire truck bearing Merv’s coffin. The rest of the Old Lyme Fire Department (OLFD) marched behind.

After the coffin had been taken off the truck and situated, contrary to the details in the program, military honors took place immediately by a Navy color guard: rifle shots, taps, the removal and folding of the flag draping the coffin and presenting it to the family.

Following this was a sweet young girl’s rendition of “The Sailor’s Hymn”; the program attributed this simply to Elle, of Duck River Lane.

Martha McNair read a long eulogy for her father written by brother Neel Roberts, a missionary in Thailand whom the pandemic prevented from attending. This eulogy was so complete! Informative, poignant, funny at times. Unless you were an immediate family member, you probably learned something about Merv when you heard this.

And when the fire whistle rang in the middle, Martha stopped reading to ask, with a little laugh,  “Does anyone have to leave?” No one did, which was surprising because the town’s whole force seemed to be there paying their respects.

We heard later that a truck each from Lyme and East Lyme took part as well.

Robin Ritze, Merv’s granddaughter and daughter of Edie Main, sang “Amazing Grace” and was joined by many present, whether we were supposed to sing along or not.

Skip Beebe of the OLFD next offered, “Reflections on a Life Well Lived.”

All present were asked to join next in the reciting of Psalm 23.

This moving, hour-long service concluded , as would the service of any firefighter, with the ringing of the bells. Skip explained that firefighters are called to a fire by the ringing of a bell, and when all is over, the bell is rung again to signify that the emergency is over.

Therefore, at the conclusion of Merv Roberts’ funeral, the OLFD bell was rung three times to indicate that a job well done [Mr. Roberts’s life] is now completed.

At the cemetery. Photo by Gerry Graves.

Olwen Logan, publisher of LymeLine.com, commented:

I feel so privileged to have known Mr. Roberts. Both “a scholar and a gentleman,” he was an extraordinary man and such a mine of information. He wrote several op-ed’s for LymeLine and was never hesitant to give his opinions on a wide range of topics. Mr. Roberts led a truly amazing life and wrote many books. He gave me an autographed copy of ‘The Tidemarsh Guide to Fishes’ and it is one of my most treasured possessions to this day.

Michele Dickey wrote a wonderful article about Mr. Roberts in May of last year in which he reflected on his 50 years service as Chaplain of the Old Lyme Fire Department. We also published an article including a video of Mr. Roberts reading his final Memorial Day Homily aloud.

Finally, through a recent fortuitous series of events, LymeLine.com helped connect a boat named the ‘Mervin F. Roberts’ with the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association (WILSSA) in Kittery Point, Maine. The President of the WILSSA, Sam Reid, came to Old Lyme to meet in person with Mr. Roberts. The boat has now been transported to Maine to be restored in the WILSSA Maritime Museum and we know Mr. Roberts was very happy with that outcome.

A fundraising campaign is underway locally to assist with the expense of moving the boat. Read our article covering the whole story of the boat, why it is so named, and why it is such an important find for the WILSSA at this link.

The flag flies at half-mast in Duck River Cemetery in honor of Mervin F. Roberts, a scholar and a gentleman. RIP, Mr. Roberts.

 

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Comments

  1. I’m not “the” Neel Roberts in the article but “A” Neel Roberts from Vulcan, Alberta, Canada and just happen to get this via Google alerts. My condolences to the Roberts family as it sounds like he lived a full and honorable live. Psalm 116:15 “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” Neel_Roberts@ptccanada.com

    • Martha McNair says

      Thank you Neel, for your kind words. Our father was indeed a fine man, and he did live a full and honorable life. I was blessed to be his daughter. And he, too, will be blessed if/when the Lord finds him precious in His sight.

  2. Mary Ann Chalmers says

    Love and sympathy to all who mourn Mr Ritz’s passing knowing how comforted you all will be in with wonderful memories. Ron and Mary Ann Chalmers

  3. Carol Hopkins says

    Such a wonderful man. A true privilege to know him and members of his family. May his legacy to serve others live on in all of us.

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