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In Memoriam: Charles J. Merdinger

  • Charles John Merdinger, 21st President of Washington College
    Charles John Merdinger, 21st President of Washington College
December 29, 2013
Dr. Charles J. Merdinger, Washington College president from 1970-1973, passed away on December 13th.

A veteran of World War II and the Vietnam War, his remarkable story of leadership and survival on the USS Nevada during the attack on Pearl Harbor (which you can read about here) was the most dramatic moment of his many years of service. But it was hardly the only achievement of his tenure with the Navy. A civil engineer by training, Dr. Merdinger led public works and construction projects across the world. After his retirement from service, he taught, wrote, and worked on behalf of many educational and advocacy organizations.

Despite his short tenure as President, Charles Merdinger maintained a lifelong friendship with Washington College. His family asks that donations be made in his honor to Washington College in lieu of flowers. To make a gift, please contact the Advancement Office at (410) 778-7801.

—Mitchell B. Reiss


Charles J. Merdinger

April 20, 1918 - December 13, 2013


Resident of Cupertino, 
Dr. Charles J. Merdinger, civil engineer, naval officer, and academic administrator, was born in Chicago, raised in Milwaukee, attended Marquette University, and was awarded a Bachelor of Science from the U.S. Naval Academy, Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Civil Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a Doctor of Philosophy from Brasenose College, Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He held honorary degrees, Doctor of Letters and Doctor of Humane Letters, from the University of Nevada, and from Sierra Nevada College, respectively. 

He served in the Navy from World War II through the Vietnam war, and then pursued an academic and business career. During World War II he was a line officer at sea - initially aboard the USS Nevada when it was sunk at Pearl Harbor - and then aboard the USS Alabama in combat operations in the north Atlantic and the south Pacific. At the close of the war, he transferred to the Navy Civil Engineer Corps and embarked on a series of public works and construction assignments in Panama, the Aleutian Islands, Japan, and the U.S. He was in charge of building the Navy’s first master jet air station at Miramar, and headed the Navy’s largest Public Works department in the world, headquartered in Da Nang, Vietnam. His most important research/academic posts were as director of the Naval Civil Engineering Laboratory at Port Hueneme and head of the English, History, and Government Department at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he also taught. As a military administrator in Washington, he was responsible for overseeing the operations and maintenance budget, and operating standards for all public works departments in the naval shore establishment. At the conclusion of his tour as commanding officer of the Western Division Naval Facilities Engineering Command, he retired from the Navy in 1970. 

In his new civilian career, Dr. Merdinger served as President of Washington College, Vice-President of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, Deputy Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and as a Director of AVCO Corporation, a multinational conglomerate. In addition to community service boards he was active on boards devoted to higher education including the Ocean Research Foundation, DRI Research Foundation, University of Nevada Reno Foundation, and Sierra Nevada College (Chairman of the Board Emeritus). After serving as Secretary for the Rhodes Scholarships in Nevada, he became a commissioner (public member from Nevada) on the NW Association Commission on Colleges, the accrediting body for the seven northwestern states. His honorary and professional affiliations included Sigma Xi, Tau Beta Pi, Chi Epsilon, American Society of Civil Engineers, Professional Engineers, Military Engineers, and the Explorers Club.

Dr. Merdinger authored the book, “Civil Engineering Through the Ages,” numerous award-winning articles, and a section in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He was a Papal Knight Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepluchre of Jerusalem, a “Distinguished Eagle Scout,” a former varsity football, basketball, soccer and All-American lacrosse player, and honoree in the Athletic Hall of Fame at Rensselaer. His military decorations for service with the Seabees in Vietnam included the Legion of Merit with combat “V,” and the combat action ribbon.

He leaves behind his wife of 69 years, the former Mary McKelleget of Cambridge, MA, daughter Anne Merdinger Kern, son-in-law Dr. Fred Kern, and grandchildren David, Suzanne and Kathryn Kern; daughter Dr. Joan Merdinger, son-in-law Dr. Edward Bough, and grandchildren Geoffrey and Meredith Bough; daughter Cdr. Susan Merdinger; and daughter Dr. Jane Merdinger, son-in-law Bruce Cole, and grandchildren Alexandra, Catherine and Anna Cole. 

A celebration of Dr. Merdinger’s life will be held on Saturday, December 28, 2013 at 2 PM at The Forum, 23500 Cristo Rey Drive, Cupertino, CA.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial donations be sent either to Washington College, 300 Washington Street, Chestertown, MD, 21620, or to a charity of your choice.

Last modified on Dec. 29th, 2013 at 1:00pm by .