There was a buzz around George Mason University’s Fairfax Campus on Monday, April 15, 1996. The Mason community was about to meet the university’s new president-elect in a press conference later that afternoon. Dr. Alan Merten, Mason’s fifth president, was set to officially assume the presidency on July 1, and he was about to be introduced to students, faculty, staff, and the press.
Dr. Merten was chosen to succeed Dr. George Johnson, who served seventeen years at the head of George Mason and is widely credited for helping the young university step outside of the shadow its former parent institution, The University of Virginia. In fact, just three days prior, on April 12, the university dedicated its largest building and named it in honor of Johnson in glitzy ceremony, featuring local and state officials, university benefactors and Board of Visitors members, a fanfare by a fifty-piece orchestra, and the unveiling of the George Mason statue.
After he was introduced by the Rector of the Board of Visitors, Stanley Harrison, Dr. Merten stepped up to the microphone to introduce himself. He told us that he had been in the Northern Virginia area twenty years prior, and he and his wife were married in Franconia. He added that “I was in the Air Force, my wife was a nurse, I got sick, and the rest has been told in every dime-novel ever written.” This little quip broke the ice, started the entire room laughing, and introduced us to his deadpan sense of humor. During his ensuing remarks, Dr. Merten talked about how excited he was about beginning his work at George Mason, and how much work needed to be done to bring the university up to the next level. Merten acknowledged that fundraising would be a big part of his job. He added that he was once told that he would need to know exactly when to ask for donations, even when engaged in casual conversation, such as: “Would you please pass the salt, and may I have 9 million dollars please?” Having had a taste of Dr. Merten’s good-natured humor, I think we all left Mason Hall with a good feeling about our new president that day.
In the fall semester of 1996, Dr. Merten and his wife Sally instantly became a favorite with students. The student newspaper Broadside featured stories on the Mertens’ first interactions with incoming Mason students. It was during the August move-in to the residence halls. Alan and Sally not only helped students move their furniture and other things, they personally cooked hot dogs and hamburgers for them and passed out ice cream to hot and tired residents. They would continue this tradition every year for the next 15 years. I recall my then-supervisor telling me on numerous occasions that he noticed the Mertens walking the campus meeting students or sitting down to lunch with them in the Johnson Center.
During the late 1990s, I served on a university committee that solicited nominations and chose the George Mason University Employee of the Month (EoM). Each EoM met with the President and received a certificate, a photo with Dr. Merten, and a basket of nice gifts. As Chair of the committee I also got to take part in the ceremony each month. That is when I got the opportunity to see how Dr. Merten interacted with staff members. He took great care in studying each EoM’s background, their responsibilities in their unit, and their colleagues’ impressions of them. Each month Dr. Merten would offer unique and very personal kudos to that month’s EoM. During University Service awards in April, and the many other recognition ceremonies that would be held during the year, the Mertens teamed up to honor employees for their service to the university. Sally would read the recipient’s name and the description of their accomplishment while Dr. Merten would present the award and do the “grip and grin” for the photograph. Alan and Sally were often seen in chefs’ hats and coats cooking and serving breakfast to those attending employee recognition events.
Dr. Merten was a huge supporter of Mason Athletics, particularly basketball. During his first three months in office, he had a major role in choosing the new Men’s and Women’s basketball team coaches. The Men’s coach, Jim Larrañaga and his wife, Liz, became very close friends with the Mertens. During the 2005-2006 Men’s Basketball season the Patriots were selected as an at-large bid to participate in the NCAA National Championship Tournament. Improbably, Mason defeated Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State, and #1 Seed Connecticut to advance to the Final Four. Both Dr. Merten and Jim Larrañaga were in high demand for press interviews, and they both went to great lengths to promote George Mason’s accomplishments other than basketball. Dr. Merten recalled to us in an oral history interview that when Mason defeated Northeast Regional-opponent, Connecticut, a large security guard escorted him down to the floor so that he could celebrate with the team. Once down on the hardwood, Dr. Merten asked for the guard to bring former president, George Johnson down as well. Merten felt that President Johnson deserved to be on court to celebrate with them as well.
While it is sometimes difficult to convince most people to sit for an oral history interview, it is even tougher to secure an interview with a university president. Scheduling and other obstacles often leave a small window of time for even a brief interview with a higher-ed executive. Dr. Merten was kind enough to participate in three interviews with us. The first interview took place in August of 2006. Our oral history program had been interviewing members of the Men’s Basketball team, coaches, and administrators in Intercollegiate Athletics at Mason after their success in the NCAA Tournament that Spring. Dr. Merten somehow heard through the grapevine that we interviewing individuals about their experiences during the period. He reached out to the University Libraries and requested to be interviewed. We could not believe our luck! We interviewed Dr. Merten in his office. He wore his very large NCAA Championship Final Four ring proudly, and we made sure we got it in the video frame as much as possible. He had a wonderful time recounting all of his exploits with the team, coaches, and members of the news media during that magical five weeks. We had a wonderful time listening to and recording him.
During an interview in January of 2010 Dr. Merten told us a story about being recognized in an elevator in Richmond, Virginia. I came to learn that he told the story many times to many groups of people over the years. The abbreviated version of the story goes like this: “I am riding in an elevator. The elevator stops and a young man gets into the car. I am following elevator etiquette, minding my own business, and staring straight ahead. The young man, however, keeps staring right at me. Finally, he turns to me and says, “I know who you are. You’re George Mason!” The young man then leaves the elevator, and I’m there by myself, puzzled by what has just happened.” Dr. Merten ended the story by realizing that even though the young man misidentified him, he was right in that Dr. Merten, as well as everyone who attends or represents the institution, is George Mason.
Dr. Merten, you always were, and will always be, George Mason.
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