Joseph P. Merke, 65, engineer, chairman of Columbia Council

January 03, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Joseph P. Merke, a retired engineer and former chairman of the Columbia Council and Columbia Association board of directors, and an adviser to the Howard County Board of Education, died of cancer Tuesday at Sinai Hospital. He was 65.

Mr. Merke, who was born and raised in Cincinnati, earned a bachelor's degree in industrial management in 1962 with a minor in mechanical engineering from the College of Engineering and Business Administration of the University of Cincinnati.

For 23 years, he worked in the plastic molding industry in Cincinnati - where he was a plant owner-manager, a consultant, a sales manager and an assistant chief engineer - before moving to Columbia in 1985.

From 1985 until he retired this year, Mr. Merke was a tooling engineering manager for Bowles Fluidics Corp. in Columbia, where he was responsible for overseeing a team of plastics molding engineers. He was also a member of the company's management review and safety committees.

In recent months, he had been a sales representative for Space Limited of Woodlawn, also plastic molders.

Mr. Merke held several patents, including one for a one-piece beater for electric mixers. His professional memberships included the Society of Plastics Engineers.

Mr. Merke's civic activism began in Cincinnati, where from 1968 to 1970 he was regional chairman of Project Commitment, a citywide effort that promoted interracial dialogue and understanding.

When he moved to Maryland, he was drawn to Columbia because of its social and economic diversity.

"That was always a huge part of who he was," said his wife of 41 years, the former Barbara Porter, a social worker who is administrator of the Ellicott City campus of Sheppard-Pratt Health System.

Mr. Merke was elected in 1988 to the Columbia Council from Town Center village. He served a second term as the neighborhood's representative from 1996 to 2000. He was chairman of the Columbia Council and the Columbia Association board of directors from 1998 to 2000.

He was a member of the education review committee and the subcommittee on redistricting for the Howard County Board of Education during the 1990s.

"Joe pitched in to help build the organization that is here today. He was motivated by futuristic thinking. He wanted what we enjoy today to be here for our children and grandchildren tomorrow. He always had that at heart," said Maggie J. Brown, the current Columbia Association president.

"If something needed attention, he got right into it. He was a man who could rally people, and that speaks volumes about his commitment."

Helen Ruther, a longtime friend and former covenant adviser for Town Center village, recalled Mr. Merke's efforts on behalf of the community.

"He really spent a lot of time working for Town Center village and the Columbia Association. He was a consensus builder that everyone liked. He was even liked by those who didn't agree with him," Mrs. Ruther said.

"When you do the job right, you're going to a lot of meetings all the time. He certainly had lots of energy."

Mr. Merke greeted new residents, delivering welcome packages.

"That was certainly a nice way to get them involved in the community," Mrs. Ruther said.

"Everybody felt that he was a gentleman, open, honest and fair-minded. He also had an ethical sense about how the council should work," said Padraic M. Kennedy, a former president of the Columbia Association.

In 1992, Mr. Merke resigned from the Columbia Council to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest over construction of Fairway Hills Golf Course, which abutted his home. "He certainly didn't want any appearance of a conflict of interest," Mr. Kennedy said.

"He also tirelessly worked both when on the council and off in getting them to buy the statue of Jim Rouse, the founder of Columbia, that now stands in Town Center. He kept that issue front and center and I think he was really proud of that," he said.

Mr. Merke enjoyed attending the theater and concerts of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He was also an avid supporter of the Columbia Arts Festival.

He enjoyed reading about Native Americans and the Civil War. Family members said he was interested in researching the life of Oliver Otis Howard, the Civil War general who founded Howard University in Washington.

Mr. Merke was an active communicant of St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, where since 1999 he had been a member of the church's St. James Covenant Committee. The committee helps foster interracial understanding and aid to St. James Episcopal Church in Baltimore's Lafayette Square.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. today at St. John's, 9120 Frederick Road in Ellicott City.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Merke is survived by two sons, David R. Merke of Ellicott City and Nathan J. Merke of Columbia; and two daughters, Susan M. Kramer of Cincinnati and Ann C. Merke of Annapolis; and five grandchildren.

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