Merle Henry Banta of San Marino, California, passed away on January 12, 2022.
Merle’s remarkable life began on December 11, 1932, in East St. Louis, Illinois. Born to Albert Merle and Vivian Mae Banta, he was the oldest of three children. He cared deeply for his sisters Vivian and Shirley who preceded him in death. Merle’s father Albert tragically died in a work accident when he was nine years old, leaving him as the man of the house at a very young age.
Merle watched his mother care for her parents while working multiple jobs to provide for their struggling family, yet she refused government assistance. She instilled in Merle and his sisters the importance of education. She ensured that through rigorous attention to his schoolwork he would gain a tireless work ethic. Merle was an exceptional student at Normandy High School in St. Louis and was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by his classmates. This turned out to be an understatement.
Anyone who met Merle knew him to be brilliant. He earned a National Merit Scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis, where he earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in civil engineering. He went on to attain his master’s degree in structural engineering at Iowa State University. After serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy, he earned his master’s in business administration at Harvard Business School, graduating in the top one percent of his class and being named a prestigious Baker Scholar.
Merle worked as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. in Los Angeles before teaming up with McKinsey associate Steve Hinchliffe to strike out on their own, forming the Leisure Group, Inc. (later known as BHH Management, Inc.) in 1964. Beginning with the acquisition of a small sprinkler manufacturer, Banta and Hinchliffe proceeded to assemble a thriving enterprise of 20 different companies in the leisure time industry.
In 1983, Merle took leave from managing BHH businesses and was named chairman, president and CEO of AM International in Chicago, a Fortune 500 company with 12,000 employees and 16 foreign subsidiaries. He ran the company for 10 years before returning to BHH. In all his endeavors, Merle thrived in managing people and he was loved and respected by all. The partners sold their last company in 2017. Through the years, Merle brought his sharp business acumen to bear serving as director on boards of several companies and organizations.
Attending grammar school in Bel Nor, Missouri, a young girl named June Mueller took notice of Merle and the rest is history. Both attended Normandy High School and Washington University and, after his graduation, Merle and June married in 1955. Early in their marriage, and given his curiosity about the world, Merle surprised his new wife by selecting a less than luxurious position as resident officer in charge of construction at Naval Air Station Port Lyautey in Morocco. This exotic experience set the stage for a life full of travel and adventure.
His next assignment was as chief public works officer supervising prisoners at the Portsmouth Naval Prison in Kittery, Maine. Following the completion of his military service in 1959 and his MBA in 1961, he began his business career in Los Angeles and the couple moved to Pasadena, eventually making their longtime home in San Marino.
Despite his demanding career, Merle was a devoted father to Brenda, Bert and Brad, always making time for them and attending their sports and activities. Family was of highest importance to him, and he made it a priority for the entire family to gather annually in the summer in Washington and at Thanksgiving. He was a true leader for his family, both in his direct encouragements and in the examples he set.
Merle loved competition and all sports, especially baseball and his favorite, the St. Louis Cardinals. He was well ahead of his time when he led two San Marino youth baseball teams abroad, first to Japan in 1974 and later to Europe in 1976. His impact on the young men he coached was significant and long lasting. He was an avid fan at Brenda’s high school and college tennis matches, Bert’s basketball games, and he even coached Bert’s and Brad’s baseball teams. He was present for every grandchild’s activity possible, and he had a special relationship with each one.
Merle was fond of traveling, often with Brad in his later years, and he researched every destination with vigor. He was a World War II historian, a voracious reader and he was adept at solving crossword puzzles in ink. He loved his Skye Terriers, of which the family has enjoyed the companionship of seven.
He was a man of solid faith and spent his early years as a Sunday youth preacher at Normandy Methodist Church. He went on to serve as a church school teacher and elder at San Marino Community Church and so looked forward to his time in the courtyard with friends after services.
Supporting San Marino’s Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens was of great importance to Merle, and he was a founding and long-serving overseer of the library’s board. His and June’s philanthropic and volunteer endeavors there, at Huntington Hospital, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Pasadena Polytechnic School and San Marino Community Church were among his most cherished undertakings. In honor of his mother, he created an endowed engineering scholarship at Washington University.
Merle is survived by his loving wife June; his children Brenda (Mike) Williams, Bert (Darrell Chulay) Banta, and Bradford (Kathleen McAniff) Banta; along with grandchildren Gibson Banta, Henry (Kate Schmedake) Williams, Maudie (Clark) Tanner, Cameron (Maddy Turek) Williams, Cornell Banta and Bing Banta. He was also the proud great grandfather of Alexis and Aubrey Williams and Reed and Lloyd Tanner as well as a cherished uncle and godfather.
Merle will be greatly missed and we will always remember his drive and inspiration, loyalty and integrity, quick wit and humorous poems, and, most of all, the love and support he shared with us. Of all his accomplishments, Merle will perhaps be best remembered for his interest in and kindness to everyone he encountered. If you wish to do something in his memory, reach out to a child or a grandchild, a niece or a nephew, a friend or an acquaintance and surprise them with a little extra attention and care.
Merle was buried in the San Gabriel Cemetery in a private service. The family will join together this summer in Olympia, Washington, for a Celebration of Life.
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