John K. and Verna Merrell

A conversation on a flight began a legacy of support for Meharry's mission to the underserved.

John K. Merrell, now retired from Industrial Dielectrics, Inc., admits that when he boarded a plane en route to a business meeting in the 1980s, the last thing on his mind was how the flight would affect his life.

"It was like any other trip," says Merrell. "But, after I sat down, I met a gentleman who would enlighten me to a time and a story." Merrell was seated next to a man who, at the time, was employed with Meharry Medical College. They struck up a conversation. Not unusual. However, as they talked, the man began telling Merrell all about Meharry Medical College.

Already a philanthropist, Merrell listened intently as his "seatmate" spoke about Meharry's mission of serving the underserved and underrepresented. Merrell sensed this mission was the core of every Meharrian. "I had never heard of Meharry," he said. "Through the entire ride, I learned more and more about this wonderful place."

After the flight, Merrell gave the man his name and address and asked to be placed on the College's mailing list so he could receive literature about Meharry. His plane companion obliged. Since those many years ago, John Merrell and his wife, Verna, have been consistent, faithful supporters of Meharry. Merrell laughs and admits he does not even remember the name of the man on the plane, but, he and his wife began giving $200 to Meharry every single time they would get a donor request in the mail.

"Both Verna and I are in awe of the doctors and health care leaders that come out of Meharry," Merrell said. "That chance meeting on the plane ride was supposed to happen."

The Merrells do not feel obligated to give to Meharry. "The mission statement of serving the poor and underserved goes way beyond admirable," said Merrell. "We give to expand, support and provide to the College. We are honored to be a part of being able to send Meharry physicians out to practice in poor areas, especially in the field of primary care where they are critically needed."

In 2008, the Merrells, along with their daughter Carrie Houchin, had the chance to finally visit the College.

They were impressed by the staff, personnel and students. One of the highlights of that day was having the opportunity to lunch with the students. "They are what it's all about," said the Merrells. "It was touching to sit and talk with the very individuals we are helping."  Houchin was so moved by what she observed, she too began donating to Meharry on an annual basis.

"Dr. Riley is doing good work at Meharry," said Verna Merrell. "He was wonderful and delightful company when we came to visit and we were very comfortable around him. He made us feel welcome. We've taken such an interest in the College that, we not only 'gift' to Meharry, we have adopted it!"

The Merrells have come such a long way since the plane ride 30 years ago. They have since established the John K. and Verna P. Merrell Endowed Scholarship of $1 million for Meharry's School of Medicine. "We don't require that the money goes to a certain entity of Meharry, we just want it to be used wherever it is needed," said Merrell.

Since their initial visit in 2008, they have returned to the campus to meet their student recipients of their scholarship.

The Merrells, who reside in Noblesville, Ind., are continuing to be advocates of Meharry. One thing they make clear: "We never, never wanted any 'thank you's.' We are the ones who want to thank Meharry for its work in serving the underserved. We are the ones who are privileged to be a part of their legacy."