Merton Olin - Remittance Man
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Merton Olin was born on September 29, 1903 in the iron range of Minnesota to Franklin Herbert Olin and Sophrona (Veronica C) Lieferman Olin.


 


Merton grew up an only child in an often fatherless home, Merton's father worked through a series of itinerant jobs, such as carpenter and lumber-hauler, before finding his true calling as a steam engine operator and engineer for the Oliver Iron Mining Company and Great Northern Railroad. Frank would be frequently absent for weeks or months at a time. Between the ages of two and five, Merton almost never saw his father, as Frank was working to build the Panama Canal. 

After the canal project, for the next twenty years, Frank looked for contract employment wherever he could, moving his family from Coleraine, to Minneapolis, to Hibbing, to Duluth. Mert's early life was one with few deep-rooted friendships. He developed a rebellious reputation, characterized by a rapier wit combined with a barely-subdued narcissistic mean streak. It would appear, even in his early years, that Merton might be possessed by subtle inner demons.

This is not to say that Mert couldn't be very engaging, or even charming, when he wanted to be. 

Mert also had style. He had acquired a taste for the good life. He loved expensive cars and appreciated fine men's fashion. He also had an affinity for women, similar to his father's, and he enjoyed socializing and partying with them ... along with his Dad on occasion.   


 




Merton was born with a thirst for adventure, and was among the first people in the country to fly in an airplane. On Tuesday, September 2, 1919, he paid fifteen dollars to ride in a demonstration flight at Curtiss Northwest Airport (near the Minnesota State Fairgrounds) in a Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplane.   





Taking off from a grass strip, the pilot banked hard left and the two of them strafed the dozens of people observing the aerial activity from their cars lined along the dirt-road intersection of Snelling and Larpenteur Avenues. Merton was hooked ... and would forever be seeking that next great adventure. 


Throughout Mert's early adult-hood, his father tried hard to keep him happy and entertained. This meant many late nights out dancing and carousing. Although Frank never drank much alcohol, Mert developed a taste for it early, and it would have serious ramifications later in life.


Merton and Frank Olin


The summer after Merton graduated from Hibbing High School in 1921, the school was torn down to access the iron ore in the ground beneath it. There could be no clearer signal that life in industrial northern Minnesota was not his destiny. He would never look back. 

Merton was blessed with an exceedingly high intellect. He was well-read and knowledgeable of world affairs. He could be very direct and to-the-point when he needed to be. He enjoyed being perceived as an authority on whatever topic he was discussing - and he usually was.

He was the first of his branch of the Olin family to attend college, entering the University of Minnesota. However, after three and half years, with only four weeks left before graduation, Mert's rebellious inner demons persuaded him to drop out. It seemed like he was making a point of it ... a point that most people could not understand.



He immediately took a job at Capper & Capper Mens Clothing Store at 2518 Emerson Avenue North (located in the lobby of the Radisson Hotel), in downtown Minneapolis.





Mert began dating a gorgeous young lady, Ann Sylvia Roring, whom he had met while working at the store. Ann was a popular and slightly cantankerous pixie, who also happened to be one of the best dancers in the Twin Cities. She had an alluring style that Mert could not resist.



  


In 1926, Merton and Ann were married. On April 24, 1928, the two of them celebrated the birth of their first child, Thomas Franklin Olin.

Mert's success at Capper & Capper caught the attention of several regional executives of a rapidly-rising retailer named the J.C. Penney Company. With roots in the great plains, even though its corporate headquarters had been relocated to New York City, the retail chain had more than 500 stores from coast to coast, with plans to build a thousand more. Mert was asked to join the company in the high-profile position of "new-store manager," where he would set-up and stock new retail stores, hire new employees, and get the businesses up and running, before moving on to another location. Merton was uniquely-skilled to take on such a job.



During the early 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, the J.C. Penney Company was opening two new stores a week, buoyed by a "Golden Rule" of good products at fair prices. Merton was making a lucrative living by launching stores in such cities as ... Grand Forks, North Dakota ... Eau Claire, Wisconsin ... Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan ... New Castle, Pennsylvania ... and York, Pennsylvania.



Despite their financial success, the nature of the job meant that the Olin family could not establish long-term friendships. Merton's son, Tom, remembered that he attended seven different schools by third grade. 

The gravy train finally arrived at the station, when company expansion slowed and Mert took a permanent manager position at the J.C. Penney store in Grove City, Pennsylvania. 

While most people would relish the opportunity to have a more stable home and family life, there are others for whom that same stability represented monotony, lack of challenge, and anonymity. Such was the case with Mert, who soon became bored and searched to ease his restless mind:

  • He returned to his love of flight and joined the Civil Air Patrol, where he helped rebuild a Piper Cub, and then learned to fly it, becoming a licensed pilot.
  • He acquired an interest in model trains and built a fantastic layout with paper mache mountains, intricate villages and detailed trestles.
  • He imported wooden barrels from France, had grapes delivered from the Napa Valley to Paganelli's Grocery in Grove City, where he picked them up and made home-made wine in his basement.
  • He leased a cabin nine miles southwest of Ridgeway in the Allegheny National Forest, facetiously naming it ... Hoof-Hearted.


 




Difficulties descended upon the family when their son, James Herbert Olin (born 1931), contracted rheumatic fever at nine years of age, and then again when he was twelve. Jim had been born with a congenital heart condition that left him frail and more susceptible to illnesses. Ann quietly carried the emotional burden ... while son Tom often carried his brother up and down the stairs of their home.

In 1941, daughter Lee Ann Olin was born and five years later, eldest son, Tom, enlisted in the U.S.Army and departed for Tokyo, Japan.

Merton and Ann's children:
Tom, Lee Ann, and Jim

Merton had been active in the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE) for many years. He was well-liked at the local chapter, where he ritually stopped on the way home from work every night. Indeed, Mert could be the life of the party when he desired. He stood out in a crowd, with his large, prematurely bald head, and engaging personality. He would often share a double-entendre joke with a glint in his eye and a tip of his glass ... and then offer the punchline with a wicked smile and knowing snigger.



Merton's Elks Lodge was selected as an "All-American Lodge" and he was appointed Grand Esquire by the Grand Exhalted Ruler of the (national) Grand Lodge. 


Elks All-Americans
(Merton is third from left)

The J.C. Penney Company celebrated its 50th Anniversary Golden Jubilee at the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Hotel in Atlantic City in February 1952. Merton received several awards for his career achievements with the company.


J.C. Penney 50th Anniversary Golden Jubilee Banquet (February 1952)
(Merton and Ann are in center of right side)

  

In September of 1953, Merton was elected Lieutenant Governor of Kiwanis Club - Pennsylvania District #1 and President of his local Kiwanis chapter. He was also an active member of the Grove City Rotary and Chamber of Commerce. 



Press photos: Kiwanis State Convention (with Ann, above)
Grove City Kiwanis Club President (left) 
Grove City Sesquicentennial Celebration (right)


From all outward appearances, Mert was a successful and accomplished businessman. And while he was occasionally a harsh judge at the office, on the home front, he could be both mentally and physically abusive to his family, particularly when under the influence ... when his inner demons were at work.

In 1957, Merton suffered a mild heart attack and was ordered immediate bed-rest. A temporary bedroom was set-up in the den, on the main floor of the house. After a slow and restless recuperation, including a cruise to Sweden, Merton eventually returned to work. But the damage had been done. A heart attack of any kind in those days was a figurative, if not literal, death sentence. 




Merton's father, Frank, died in 1959 ... followed by his son, Jim, while undergoing corrective heart surgery at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia in December of 1962. Then Merton was ushered into forced retirement from J.C. Penney in 1963 at age 60. 



 
Jim Olin with newborn daughter, Jane
(September 1962)


Franklin Herbert Olin - Find A Grave

In Merton Olin's mind, his life was fading into insignificance. For him, nothing could be worse.

He desperately wanted to escape his circumstance as soon as possible ... and he eventually returned to a romantic dream that he had been nurturing most of his life. The exotic locales of Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Singapore were calling ... far from his useless and pedestrian life in Grove City.

Ann was slowly recuperating from major surgery. The two of them were in the process of building a new home in Boca Raton, Florida and in the midst of packing up to relocate from Pennsylvania ... yet, he dropped everything into his wife's lap and signed himself up for a year-long circumnavigation of the globe aboard the famous Brigantine Yankee




The notorious reputation of rum consumption and “shippy” way of life of Windjammer Cruises seemed to fit perfectly with Mert Olin. He pictured himself as a modern-day Ernest Hemingway of sorts, and he openly shared this philosophy in the introduction to his sailing journal:

The thought of making an extended cruise immediately after retirement often plagued me. It would take something drastic to successfully change my way of life from that of a driving chain store manager to that of a man who planned never of necessity to work again. Compulsory retirement for a man of 60 is perfectly alright if a satisfactory retirement is available. However, complete idleness is a waste of time and a killer for a man who is healthy and still wants to be active. There is only one answer for that man, as I see it. He must find a hobby that is completely to his liking and one in which he can lose himself.

I have always longed to sail the ocean. For years, I have dreamed of retiring near water where I could have my own boat. Now the time has come when I must learn to do well that which I want to do. I must learn to handle and care for a boat so that I can go cruising when I please. The opportunity to learn presented itself when I read of Captain Mike Burke’s scheduled “Round-the-World Cruise.” After some correspondence, a doctor’s note stating my physical fitness, and the payment of the required fee, I was accepted.


He was in such a hurry to abandon his “old” life and begin his new life as Merton Olin – Adventurer, that he literally and figuratively left his old life behind in order to feel the salt spray in his face.
Merton Olin
Aboard the Brigantine Yankee


And away he went ... searching the world for what he could not seemingly find at home ... or within.

The 1964 journey of the Brigantine Yankee was the adventure of a lifetime, including the mysterious disappearance of a passenger, a near mutiny, and the eventual grounding of the ship in the South Pacific. Merton spent several months on the island of Rarotonga while the shipwreck was investigated, and he eventually returned to the mainland in Vancouver on his 61st birthday.


  

Merton's account of the entire ordeal was published in a fascinating blog:



Mert finally succeeded in sailing around the world in 1971, aboard the Orient Overseas Line ship the M.V. Oriental Esmeralda. On that adventure, he brought Ann along. The cruise took five months and was considered a great success. Mert wrote to his son Tom, "I must say that if it hadn't been for her serious case of double pneumonia in Hong Kong and Taiwan, your mother would have had a wonderful vacation. I still did anyway."

Upon his return, Mert devised his own "family ensign" design, incorporating a stylized "O" onto a flag. He regularly hoisted the flag over the small power boat he tethered along the intra-coastal canal behind his house.


 

He also maintained his ongoing pattern of eccentric behavior, fueled by both alcohol and persistent mental illness. He once pulled his classic 1962 Mercedes-Benz 220S sedan into a gas station for a fill-up and spontaneously decided to sell his car to the service attendant for five dollars. Likewise, he regularly gave away rare Persian rugs and other antiquities collected from around the world to complete strangers.



Sadly, Merton's inner demons continued to plague him. Just as he was envious of his father's popularity as a young man, he had also become envious of son Tom's meteoric personal and business success, and demeaned him whenever the opportunity presented itself.


Merton, with Ann and grandson Tom


In the last years of his life, Mert traveled to many other far-away lands, culminating with a 1980 Egyptian sail down the Nile River and visit to Abu Simbel. He was in very ill health and his wife to refused to travel with him. He cajoled his grandson, Tom, into going along as a personal valet. The trip was long and arduous, made worse by Mert's self-destructive determination to drink the local tap water. He was sick with dysentery as he returned to the United States and died a few months later.


Merton Olin - Passport Photo
(1980)

Merton Olin died on May 29, 1981 of heart failure in Boynton Beach, Florida ... a broken and bitter man. Some of those who loved him hoped that he had finally found the inner peace that eluded him throughout his life. Others were simply glad that he was gone.




Ann survived him by fourteen years. Despite their difficult relationship, she continued to love him every day of her life. She was interred beside him at the Boca Raton Cemetery and Mausoleum on November 12, 1995.


 



Sources:
Merton Olin - Personal Journals
Lee Ann (Olin) Stepanchak
Tom and Gloria Olin
Tom Olin, Jr.
                    Thomas Benjamin Olin Website
Ancestry.com
Minnesota Historical Society
U.S. Census Bureau Data
U.S. City Directories (1822 - 1995)



The Olin Family Trilogy: