Merton G. Henry ’50, H’84 died on April 6, 2018, in Portland, Maine.
(The following was published in the Portland Press Herald on April 7, 2018):
Merton G. Henry, an attorney, veteran, and stalwart Republican who served as a longtime adviser to Senator Margaret Chase Smith and was the chairman of all of Susan Collins’ Senate campaigns, died Friday night. He was ninety-two.
“Mert was a wonderful friend to my husband, Tom, and me for decades,” Collins said in a statement Saturday. “In addition to being a tremendous lawyer, Mert worked tirelessly for countless civic and philanthropic causes and was a wise counselor to many of us who served in public office.” Although he had retired from Jensen Baird Gardner and Henry, which he had helped found in 1961, Henry still regularly made the trip from his home in Scarborough to the Portland law firm’s office. Michael Quinlan, an attorney at the firm, said Henry had been in the office within the last month. Henry still served on various boards, including the Morton-Kelly Charitable Trust and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center’s advisory board. He drove, lived independently at Piper Shores Retirement Community, and was intent on remaining active.
“He was sharp as a tack,” Quinlan said.
Former U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe and her husband, former Maine Gov. John R. McKernan Jr., issued a joint statement on Henry’s passing, calling him “a voice of reason and moderation; what we like to call the ‘sensible center.’ ”
“As a lawyer Mert was a steady voice for justice, and numerous charities and nonprofit organizations have benefited from his selfless service and devotion,” Snowe and McKernan said.
Henry died at Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he had at one time been a trustee, after experiencing shortness of breath Thursday.
Henry spent his early childhood in Hampden, the son of a farmer. His grandfather ran a country store about three miles from Henry’s home, and by the time he was seven years old, he was waiting on customers and ringing up sales, according to an interview Henry did for the George J. Mitchell Oral History Project in 2008. He moved to South Portland while he was in high school.
He deferred admission to Bowdoin College in order to serve in the Army during World War II and was stationed in the Philippines. He was the first member of his family to receive a college degree, majoring in history and graduating from Bowdoin magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1950. He went onto law school at George Washington University.
One of his early jobs was working for Republican Sen. Frederick Payne of Maine in Washington. In 1958, he ran Payne’s unsuccessful re-election campaign against Democrat Edmund Muskie.
Henry’s political activism had started while he was still a college student and met then U.S. Rep. Margaret Chase Smith of Skowhegan. He volunteered on her 1948 Senate campaign. In the 2008 oral history, he described Smith as brilliant and said she “set the stage for sort of moderate politics in Maine.” His activism and pride in moderate Republicans like Smith never stopped.
In August 2016, in a letter published in the Press Herald, he applauded Senator Collins for saying she would not be voting for Donald Trump. Henry wrote that he was “flabbergasted” by the Trump campaign. “I could never vote for Mr. Trump, who totally lacks the qualifications and temperament to be president,” he said.
But as important as politics were to Henry, so was the law, a profession he excelled at.
“He was the ultimate lawyer in the traditional, gentlemanly sense,” said Kenneth Cole III, whom Henry hired at Jensen Baird when Cole was fresh out of law school. “Merton was a person who could always bring any number of opposing parties together. He had an amazing skill, to work with people and get them to agree.”
As managing partner at Jensen Baird Gardner and Henry – he was the last surviving named partner – Henry’s recruits included future Democratic U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. They had different politics, but a strong friendship. In 1980, when Mitchell was weighing the possibility of being appointed to the Senate to serve out Muskie’s term, the two friends from different parties spent many hours discussing the pros and cons of leaving his role as a federal judge in the U.S. District Court in Maine.
“George was always supportive of my activities as a Republican,” Henry said in the 2008 oral history. “And I was supportive of his activities in the Democratic Party.”
Cole said Henry’s ability to build consensus across divided lines made him a popular alumnus at Bowdoin. “At Bowdoin he became the head of any commission,” Cole said. Henry was a trustee when Bowdoin voted to include women in the student body in 1970, for instance, and the head of a 1987 commission that debated whether to do away with fraternities, two issues about as controversial as any in the college’s history.
“The fraternities have played a good role historically, but the organizations as they exist today are not fraternities,” Henry told The New York Times at the time. They were social clubs, he said, and because of the “coeducational aspect” had “caused problems.”
Bowdoin College president Clayton Rose said Henry’s wisdom and vision were “instrumental in creating change when it mattered.”
“Mert Henry’s legacy at Bowdoin is a permanent and enduring part of our college,” Rose said. “Mert was an indispensable adviser to seven Bowdoin presidents, including me.”
Among the many honorary degrees Henry received in his lifetime was a Doctor of Law from Bowdoin. Henry’s love of the law even led to his marriage. He met his wife, Harriet Putnam Henry, who died in 2004, when both were members of the Law Review at George Washington University. They moved to Maine together in 1958 and had three children. Harriet Henry was appointed to the Maine District Court in 1973, becoming Maine’s first female judge.
“Mert and his beloved wife, Harriet, represented what is best about Maine, and we consider ourselves fortunate to have known them,” Collins said. “We offer our heartfelt condolences to his children Doug, Don, and Martha.”