Welcome to Lynx to the Past. My name is Kenan and I am here today with Lillian Brimberry. All the buildings at Rhodes look very much alike from the outside. Walking through the campus for the first time, you may think that you will never be able to tell them apart. Sometimes it is hard to believe that they were built at different times over the past century. One thing they have in common, besides the Arkansas rubble stone, is that they are named for individuals and families that have supported our institution in some way.
I thought this would be a good opportunity to look into who our buildings are named after, starting with Buckman Hall. Buckman Hall was dedicated to Dr. Stanley Joseph Buckman and his wife Mertie Buckman. The Buckmans did not attend Rhodes but they contributed to many educational institutions in the Memphis area.
Dr. Stanley Buckman founded Buckman Laboratories in Memphis in 1945 with one product that was used to control microbiological problems in paper mills. Dr. Buckman lived from 1908-1978 and after his death, his wife, Mertie Buckman, became heavily involved in supporting Rhodes academics. The Buckman building is in honor of Stanley Buckman but it was his modest wife that was more involved in lifting up schools throughout Memphis.
Flora Mertie Willigar was born in Lyme New Hampshire in 1904. Her parents ran a dairy farm. Little Mertie was responsible for farm chores like taking care of the chickens and bailing hay. She helped her family raise cattle and sell milk. The town of Lyme had a little two-room schoolhouse that went up to 8th grade. Mertie was sent away to boarding school the next year, but the school was new and unorganized. The students were basically on their own. They weren’t supervised in the dorms and had to cook their own food. After a week, her mother brought her home and she spent another year in grade school basically doing an independent study until she could enroll in a more established school.
Her mom seemed to be a huge influence on Mertie.
Mertie’s mother was committed to the importance of education. When she was young, her father thought that her brother should be the one to get the opportunity to continue his education. This angered her because her brother had no interest in school while she did. Fortunately, Mertie’s mom was ahead of her time. She wanted to make sure that Mertie and other young women were given the opportunities she had been denied. Hattie Della Dustin Willigar was independent and strong willed. She had her own money and her own property. She had inherited her family’s farm and made her husband purchase the farm from her when they got married! She kept her money separate from her husband’s and managed her own finances. Her frustration with the injustices suffered by women must have rubbed off on her daughter. Mertie shared her mother’s desire that girls and women should have the same opportunities as their brothers. They followed the women’s suffrage movement together and were strong advocates of the ratification of the Nineteenth amendment.
Unfortunately, Hattie died when Mertie was only thirteen, leaving her to take on more responsibility in the home. She had to leave school to help her dad and little sister. She managed the farm and cooked and cleaned for three years. She wanted to continue her education but wasn’t sure what she wanted to study. So she stayed in Lyme and taught grades 1 through 4 at the same little school she had attended. Her plans changed when her father died suddenly.
At 19, she became the head of the family with no relatives living in New England. When her sister Bernis finished her school year, they held an auction to sell the farm and all of their belongings. Afterwards they got on a train and went to the Pacific Northwest to stay with an aunt and uncle in Washington. Mertie Buckman enrolled at the University of Washington and earned both bachelors and master’s degree in home economics.
After graduation she began teaching home economics at the University of Minnesota. One day at the butcher shop she caught the eye of a grad student named Stanley. He found out her name and called her, only to get scared and hang up on her. He called back though and asked her for a date. Ever practical, Mertie ditched the boy she had been dating because unlike Stanley, he had no goals, no plans for marriage, and no ideas about a career. Mertie and Stanley married in 1933. It was in the middle of the Great Depression and employment was hard to come by. They spent one summer in Toledo and then Mertie went back to teach in Minnesota while Stanley moved to Louisville Kentucky. They saw each other on holidays and that year set the tone for much of their marriage: Stanley devoted to work and Mertie independent and self-reliant.
Later she accepted a faculty position at the University of Louisville, and they had a couple of kids. Stanley and a friend from college had an idea to set up an independent chemical company. The location on the Mississippi river, the low cost of electricity, inexpensive labor and the mild weather lured them all to Memphis in the 1940s.
After a few years, the Buckmans decided to sell their interest in the company and start their own business. Working together, they purchased property on North McLean that would become the international headquarters of Buckman Laboratories. While Stanley set up the laboratory, Mertie was appointed assistant secretary-treasurer in 1963, and held that position until her retirement in 1993. Together they established a chemical company that focused on fungicides for papermills. They would travel around the country together with a microscope and a few petri dishes.
They would take samples in the paper factories and grow bacteria, slime and mold in their hotel room. The next morning, they would count the colonies and explain to the mill managers how Buckman chemicals could control their microbiological problems.
Within a couple of years, they started thinking about expanding worldwide. Mertie and Stanley travelled to Brazil, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Belgium, France and Switzerland, all in the summer of 1947. This began their expansion into international markets that continued through the next decades.
But then, in 1949 there was a HUGE explosion in the lab that blew off the roof and the side of the building! They erected a tent on the site and started construction on the new plant. While the company was rebuilding, they needed a place to work. President Rhodes offered laboratory space at Southwestern at Memphis after classes were finished each day. This was the beginning of the partnership between Rhodes College and Buckman Labs.
Now, let's talk about Stanley for a minute. He was stubborn and determined to do things his own way. He was dedicated to providing for his employees. He instituted a company policy to never lay off employees, regardless of the economy. He insisted on generous benefits and would match funds for continuing education. The company’s holiday party was one of the only desegregated events in Memphis during the time before the Civil Rights Act. Every employee received a holiday bonus and every spouse, guest, and child received a gift under the Christmas tree.
Every employee was given a little green notebook called “idea traps” in which they were to jot down ideas for more efficient performance or for changes that would benefit the company and its customer.
He was also interested in prolonging life; researching and attending meetings on the investigation of freezing tissue and the effects of vitamins. Too bad he died at 67. One day Stanley didn’t come home from work. That wasn’t particularly odd since he was known for working around the clock. Mertie got nervous and went to his office to check on him. Stanley had passed away at his desk.
Stanley was a force and when he was around, he took over any room he walked in. When he died, Mertie, who had been the support system for her husband, was finally able to reveal her own powerful presence.
What does a widow with a trust fund fortune and no interest in buying anything for herself do?
Well, if you are Mertie Buckman, you use your millions to improve the lives of others. She said in an interview that she liked projects that would provide for the people of the future. “I think that people who have had privileges and education and have acquired some money have an obligation to do something for the next generation.”
Drawing from the lessons she learned from her mother, Mertie set out to make a difference, especially for women and children.
Mertie was heavily involved in supporting Memphis colleges and furthering her love for education. She was a Trustee of Christian Brothers University and served on the Advisory Board of LeMoyne-Owen College; she was also an Honorary Trustee of Rhodes College from 1983 to September 1997, and honorary Chairman of the Margaret Hyde Council at Rhodes College.
Not only did she contribute to educational institutions, she also supported libraries in the area. She once stated, “I think libraries are very important, particularly for children. It gives them an outlet into the world. It takes them out of their everyday lives and stimulates their imaginations, and who knows where it can lead to.”
In 1987, Mertie funded a $3 million-dollar merit-based internship program for the International Studies department at Rhodes College. Mertie also donated the initial gift for Buckman Hall, a $9 million-dollar project. The rest of the funds were completed by gifts from her family and other supporters. There is a plaque outside Buckman Hall that reads: “May this building not only provide access to excellence in teaching and technology but also encourage the symbiotic relationship of various academic disciplines. -Mertie W. Buckman.”
One of Mertie’s sons, Robert H. Buckman, was also a Rhodes trustee. He was a huge benefactor for the International Studies department. Mr. R. Buckman donated the funds to create The Buckman Collection in International Studies. This collection provides literary materials in the field of International Studies. Robert Buckman established the Stanley J. Buckman Distinguished Professorship in International Studies, the Mertie Buckman Chair in International Studies, and the P.K. Sideman Distinguished Professorship in Political Economy. Robert Buckman remained heavily involved in the Rhodes community after his mother passed away and continued her legacy at Rhodes.
Mertie Buckman was committed to raising awareness for and helping fight social issues for over fifty years. She used her social prowess, business acumen, and financial resources to help people from all walks of life, regardless of race, religion, or culture.
From sewing clothes for needy children to spearheading the creation of facilities like the YWCA’s branch in Raleigh which was neighborhood outside the city at the time. Her work aimed at breaking down the barriers that separate people. She campaigned for water fluoridation and led the successful effort in 1954 to start a public library in Raleigh. She was a working board member for the Transitional Center for Women from 1973 until it closed. The Center helped women start a new life after incarceration.
Mertie stood by her principles. She never wavered from her ideals and continued to strive for a better, fairer world for us all.
And that’s the story of how even though Buckman Hall is dedicated to Stanley and Mertie Buckman for their monetary donation to the college, it is also a monument to the giving heart of Mertie Buckman.
How would you choose to leave your mark? Where would you give of your time or your money? Did you take a business class in Buckman Hall or participate in an international internship? Tell us about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for joining us for this episode of Lynx to the Past. Lillian and I couldn’t make it work without the help of Caitlin Gewin and all our friends in the Rhodes College Information Services division. We look forward to exploring more Lynx to the Past.