GOSHEN — For many years, Merle Sommers has been dedicated to service. He has always believed that kind actions and selfish service for others is a staple of his Christian faith, and that is precisely why he has continuously tried to help all those he could.
Dick Oyer, who nominated Sommers for the Neighbors Helping Neighbors recognition, has been deeply touched by Sommers’ actions, saying he has been a great friend and a great community member for years.
“Me and my wife do a lot of traveling and Merle has always offered to pick us up and take us to the airport and then take us home when we got back. One time, he insisted on picking us up in South Bend at 2:30 in the morning. He’s just been a great neighbor to us,” Oyer said.
Shortly after graduating from Goshen College in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in music and moving back to his hometown of Canton, Ohio, Sommers, a devout Mennonite, was asked by the Mennonite Board of Missions to move to Aibonito, Puerto Rico with his wife and 1-year-old daughter to teach music in a small community school.
“I loved it there,” Sommers said. “The people down there were friendly and treated us so well. And I loved working with those kids.”
Sommers taught music to students in grades 9 and 10 and also drove a bus during his time in Aibonito.
After living in Puerto Rico for four years, Sommers was approached again by the Mennonite Board of Missions and asked if he would be open to the idea of moving to Uruguay to direct the choirs at an evangelical seminary. Sommers accepted the position after much thought and discussion with his family.
“I thought, ‘Hey, let’s give it a try,’” Sommers said with a smile.
When he left after serving in Uruguay for two years, he traveled back to Puerto Rico to take a job as principal at the school he previously worked at as a music teacher.
Sommers served as principal for three years before decided to move back to Ohio, to spend more time with his parents and other relatives. At this time in his life, he and his wife were parents to four daughters, with one being born in Ohio, one in Uruguay and two in Puerto Rico.
“I am blessed to have really wonderful daughters,” Sommers mentioned.
When Sommers moved back to Ohio, he began teaching elementary music and directed high school choirs in a public school system.
Speaking of his interest in choral music, Sommers noted, “I’ve always enjoyed singing a lot. I think it’s a really great thing.”
At that point in his career Sommers said that he was “very poor,” so to make an extra income, he obtained a license to drive a school bus and drove for the school system he taught at.
He also started a summer home-painting business with his father and several hired college students.
“I spent 18 years in Ohio, and after separating from my wife, I met a nice lady and we got married and moved down to Sarasota, Florida,” Sommers said.
HELPING HURRICANE VICTIMS
While in Sarasota, Sommers became involved with a Mennonite disaster relief program, helping those affected and devastated by hurricanes. He was the program’s director for the state of Florida.
Sommers and groups of volunteers helped to provide food and basic necessities to the people in distress after hurricanes destroyed their homes and communities.
“When you can come to someone’s house that has been destroyed and make it a home again, that is such a great and humbling feeling.”
At 86, Sommers is still helping others and is active in his church, the College Mennonite Church in Goshen, and in his community, always available to help.
“Service is the best example of a Christian,” Sommers said. “It shows your faith and it manifests the love of God.”