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Merle Elliott is named The Herald-Mail's 2010 Person of the Year

Accountant served on key boards for decades that helped residents, brought jobs to community

December 31, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com
  • Merle Elliott is The Herald-Mail 2010 person of the year
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — It was a need for work that inspired Merle Elliott to get involved in the community decades ago, but today countless local residents owe their jobs, in part, to his efforts.

Now retired from a successful accounting career, Elliott, The Herald-Mail’s 2010 Person of the Year, has devoted much of his life to supporting economic development, education and other community initiatives in Washington County.

Elliott is the 12th person to be named The Herald-Mail’s Person of the Year, an annual award that goes to someone who makes a positive contribution to the community.

As a key member and past president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, or CHIEF, he helped create industrial parks, attract employers and preserve local landmarks.

He also served for many years on the Hagerstown Community College Board of Trustees, was the first chairman of the Greater Hagerstown Committee, and helped found several local initiatives, including the Community Foundation of Washington County, Leadership Hagerstown, and PRIDE, or People Really Interested in the Development of Excellence.

“I think he is one of the best assets for this community that we have ever had,” said Edward Buchanan, a partner at Elliott’s accounting firm, Smith, Elliott, Kearns & Co. LLC.

“He could have been person of the year for the last 20 years with all the things he’s done and all the organizations he started,” said Brad Sell, executive director of the community foundation, who called the award “exciting and long overdue.”

Humble beginnings

Elliott’s story has humble beginnings, and the 80-year-old philanthropist spoke candidly about his motives early in his career during a recent interview at his home near Fountain Head Country Club.

“I can sit here and tell you that I wanted to do good, well I couldn’t afford to do too much good because I didn’t have any money,” he said of his early decisions to accept pro-bono accounting jobs for nonprofit organizations. “My motives were to be known, and I accepted some of those not because I wanted to do good, but because it gave me an opportunity.”

In those days, Elliott said, accountants were prohibited from advertising or soliciting. Instead, they relied on visibility and associations, and a professional journal recommended volunteer work as the best way to achieve that, he said.

Elliott, who was born in 1930, said that growing up during the Great Depression, he and his family had no time or money for volunteering.

“I remember standing in line outside the bank downtown with my mother, and I was hardly old enough to know what that was all about, but the bank holiday had been declared, and my mother and father had lost their savings in the bank,” he said.

Elliott’s father lost his job as general manager at a milk-processing company, and his family’s house in Halfway was foreclosed upon, so the family moved to a rented house in the West End of Hagerstown, he said.

Merle Elliott was the middle child among five boys, and he and his older brothers worked as golf caddies and newspaper boys to help support the family, he said.

Perhaps thinking like the accountant he would become, Elliott, at about age 9, squirreled away some of his earnings. He collected 10-cent savings stamps — available as a savings incentive — that he traded in for a savings bond. He carried that bond around in his pocket until his mother discovered it, and the family cashed it in to use for living expenses, he said.

A career calling

It was a bookkeeping class in high school that planted the seeds for Elliott’s future career, he said.

Though he was good at math, Elliott was at first confused by debits and credits and how they applied to different types of accounts.

“It was like the most ridiculous thing I’d ever been involved with, and then all of a sudden one day, the whole idea became completely clear to me,” he said. “And then from then on that’s what I wanted to do.”

Elliott became bookkeeper for the school’s activity fund, and his bookkeeping teacher began letting him teach the class on days when the teacher had other things to do.

After graduating from high school in 1948, he worked as a bookkeeper in the accounting firm of Arthur M. Moats while attending college in Baltimore.

He joined the U.S. Army Reserves and was called to active duty for a year in Korea in the midst of the Korean War.

“I got there just as the fighting was stopping,” he said. “There was some shooting, but I didn’t get hit.”

When he returned, he sat for and passed the Maryland Certified Public Accountancy Examination. In early 1956, he began his own accounting practice in Hagerstown.

“After going through all the misery, I had $50 and I owed $3,000, I think,” he said. “But I was opening up on guts. I had a couple of businessmen who knew me, and I got a couple of clients.”

When Elliott opened his office, Earl Smith, a colleague he met while working for Moats, was the first to come into the office.

“He came in and he threw a ball at me, and he said, ‘Have a ball,’” Elliott said.

After several years of operating separately as friendly competitors, Elliott and Smith merged their practices to form the company now known as Smith, Elliott, Kearns & Co.

Getting involved

In those early years, pro-bono accounting work for nonprofit organizations, accepted for publicity’s sake, soon led to greater involvement in those organizations, Elliott said.

Accounting for the local Boy Scout council led to a position on the council’s board.

Similarly, when CHIEF was founded in 1960, Elliott became involved as an accountant to audit its fundraising records.

“From that, I became an adviser to the board, because I attended the meetings to report on what the campaign status was ... and then I was elected to the board,” Elliott said.

In 1974, he was elected president of CHIEF, a post he held until 2001.

“It was an opportunity to do good for the community, for economic development, because we were a basket case in those days,” Elliott said.

At that time, Fairchild Industries, which had once employed about 10,000 people, had fewer than 1,000 employees, he said.

One of the first projects CHIEF was involved in was finding land for Mack Trucks to open in Washington County.

“As I viewed (Mack’s search) and watched it develop, it became apparent that if somebody came in and wanted to locate here, they shouldn’t have to go through this whole thing of trying to go from scratch on a blank sheet of paper of trying to find some land and all that,” Elliott said.

And so began CHIEF’s mission to create industrial parks by buying land and putting in roads, water and sewer to create ready-made locations for prospective businesses.

“Anyone who has ever been employed by a company in the Interstate Industrial Park, 70/81 Industrial Park, Airport Business Park or Newgate Industrial Park has in some way benefited from Merle’s vision and leadership of CHIEF,” a biography provided by CHIEF said.

Elliott was an original member of the Maryland Economic Development Corp., or MEDCO, which played an important role in the transfer of the Fairchild property to the state when the plant closed, he said.

CitiCorp Credit Services had been interested in that property, but Elliott and Ron Bowers, then president of the Washington County Commissioners, came up with the idea of persuading CitiCorp to locate at another property, owned by CHIEF, leaving the Fairchild property available for other uses, he said.

‘Good idea; do it’

While working with CHIEF and the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, Elliott suggested copying initiatives he had heard about in other communities, such as Frederick County’s community foundation, which creates endowments for community groups, and a group in Cleveland that inspired the Greater Hagerstown Committee.

“I had formed associations with a number of people and thought there were things that we ought to do, so I would sell the idea, and they ended up saying, ‘Fine, it’s a good idea, do it,’” Elliott said. “You speak up in a meeting, you end up being the one who chairs the committee.”

Some of those ideas, such as the community foundation, were slow to catch on, but Elliott didn’t give up, Sell said.
Today, the Community Foundation of Washington County has grown to about $21 million in assets with about 170 endowment funds, Sell said.

Since 1997, the foundation has distributed more than $5 million to community nonprofits, Sell said.

“Merle’s just been visionary,” Sell said. “He gets ideas and he gets things done, and he’s just great to work with,” he said.

Buchanan agreed.

“He seemed to be one of those forward-thinking individuals that had the ability to look into the future and come up with a game plan about how to get there,” he said.

Long days

Elliott’s growing number of board memberships and leadership roles made for a busy schedule.

Elliott’s daughter, Judy Wilson, said she could remember her father working until midnight and then starting again at 6 a.m. or earlier.

“It was never-ending,” she said.

Driven by a love for his community, balancing his many commitments never seemed to be a problem for Elliott, Wilson said.

“I’ve never once heard him complain about giving up his time to help anyone personally or any charity,” she said.

Elliott loved his wife, Joann, deeply, and her illness and death about 10 years ago were difficult times for him, Wilson said.

She described Elliott as the “perfect” father, always there for her when she needed him. She said he taught her the value of patience and listening.

Elliott also helped raise his grandson, David Risser, who lived with his grandparents from the age of 12.

Risser, now 45, said he admired and was influenced by his grandfather’s work ethic and passion for what he did.

“He told me once, ‘If you love your job, then it’s not work,’” Risser said. “He still works from the time he gets up to the time he goes to bed.”

That didn’t mean Elliott didn’t hesitate before taking on some of his obligations. When a good friend and colleague from the EDC called Elliott to ask him to join HCC’s Board of Trustees, he hesitated.

“I needed another job like I needed a hole in my head, but it’s pretty hard to turn down someone that I’d worked very closely with, and I admired very much, so I agreed,” Elliott said.

‘Master fundraiser’

Once he got involved, however, Elliott was inspired by seeing how the success of many local residents was directly related to their education at the college, said former HCC President Norman Shea, who started as president the same day Elliott joined the board.

Shea called Elliott “a man of great wisdom and great political know-how” who was a major asset to the college from his early days on the board.

Elliott chaired the college’s first campaign to raise money for student scholarships, an effort that brought in more than $1 million, Shea said.

“He was a master fundraiser,” he said.

Elliott was also successful at securing money from the state for construction at the college, Shea said.

He testified before the General Assembly several times to get a bond issue for the construction of the Athletic, Recreation and Community Center, and he persuaded then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer to provide seed money to turn the old athletic center into an advanced technology center, Shea said.

The technology center trained workers in robotics, computers, computer-assisted drafting and other fields that were considered cutting edge in the 1980s, Shea said.

Elliott became president of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. In the early 1990s, Shea said, he played a key role in getting the state legislature to institute a funding formula for community colleges.

Shea said he considers that funding formula the most significant piece of legislation for community colleges the state had ever passed. Until then, state funding for community colleges had been unpredictable.

The idea of a formula locking the state into a guaranteed funding level, based on enrollment, was unpopular in Annapolis, but Elliott was persuasive and the measure passed, Shea said.

‘The duties you pay’

Looking back over his years of community involvement, Elliott said he is pleased to see the momentum some of his initiatives have picked up, but he wouldn’t describe the feeling as pride.

“I’m proud of my grandson, I’m proud of those kinds of things, but I don’t necessarily view the things I’ve been involved in as something to be proud of,” Elliott said. “They’re part of the duties you pay for being around, and there’s nothing I’ve done that I did alone.”

“We have a great community, great people, and given half a chance, they’ll step forward to do whatever needs to be done,” Elliott said.

As The Herald-Mail’s Person of the Year, Elliott received a crystal bowl and $1,000 to donate to a civic cause of his choice. He selected the Hagerstown Community College Foundation as the recipient.

                                                                                                                                                

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