story of Palmer Scholars cannot be told without sharing its beginning .... one
man’s very personal reaction that became a resolution, grew to commitment,
evolved to a mission, and, through passion and hard work, became Palmer
Scholars. Many of us have an inspired idea but too few of us apply what
it takes to nurture and develop that thought into something that has touched
and improved countless lives. Merle Palmer did.
While serving on a US Navy vessel during WWII, Merle observed sailors of color, perhaps more closely than he ever had in his hometown of Tacoma, WA. Up through the 1960’s most or many schools were segregated, if not by design then by neighborhood distribution. It was rare for people of color to live in the same neighborhoods as whites and district borders were often drawn to accommodate those social/economic divisions.
Living in the close quarters of a warship, Merle observed his colleagues of color were assigned to very distinct duties...doing laundry, changing bed linen, swabbing decks, peeling potatoes and other kitchen duties, etc. He also noted that, no matter how well they followed orders and executed their jobs, they received little recognition and certainly no opportunity for promotion to a higher rank. Merle was disturbed by what he recognized as injustice. Naval service was voluntary. These men had made the same commitment to their country and were exposed to the same dangers as sailors with light skin. He saw their capabilities ignored, their skills underutilized and their sacrifice less honored because of skin color. Merle resolved he would find some way.... if he returned from the war....to right this injustice.
After returning to his hometown, Merle, a Christian and active member of a Presbyterian Church took the opportunity to teach Sunday School classes to young people at Rev. Al Davis’ Eastside Church. In Rev. Davis Merle found a colleague with a similar vision and interest in supporting youth. They would later work together toward their shared goal.
One Sunday after class, Merle was talking to two Lincoln High School senior and asked, “Hey boys, where are you guys going to go to college?” The boys were speechless and looked at Merle like he was crazy. “College?? We’re not going to college!! We can’t afford to go to college!!”
Merle knew these boys and, like the sailors on the ship, knew they had what was required to do more, achieve more. What they didn’t have was the opportunity or the support. That day, Merle’s resolution began to evolve into the mission that would become Palmer Scholars. He discussed the situation with his wife, Rosie, who shared his commitment and would be his supporter in the many years of work and effort that followed. That day, both agreed they would finance a college education for these two young men, as well as provide them with the guidance and mentoring they knew would be needed, blazing the trail as the first Palmer Scholars.
In the fall of 1983, Merle and Eastside Pastor Al Davies inaugurated the "Eastside Community Church Minority Scholarship Fund" with six students, and limited funding. Located in Salishan, the church had a congregation that consisted largely of low income families of color, and had a strong youth fellowship program. The program attracted students with viable high school grades, an elevated sense of morals, and dreams of improving their financial destiny in life. Few students, however, had sufficient financial means to accomplish their goals. Merle and Pastor Al Davies took it upon themselves to try to find a way to financially support these qualified and deserving students.
Funding gradually increased when the program incorporated in 1996 as the R. Merle Palmer Minority Scholarship Foundation, a non-profit foundation with a 15- member board who at the time was serving about 35 students. Our first Ph.D. was awarded in 2003. To date, we have had over 400 degrees conferred upon our students!
The Foundation is self-perpetuating, with a diverse, passionate Board of 16 active members and two emeritus members who govern and guide the Foundation into the future. A committed group of over 200 volunteers provide support as mentors, counselors, office assistants, application readers, job shadowing, internships, and event coordinators.