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A tribute to Dr. Tim Merkel

In the world of friction materials technology, the word Abex is synonymous with Dr. Tim Merkel, better known amongst his colleagues as simply Dr. Tim.

Tim Merkel was born in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania. He was the second child, after his older brother. His mother owned and operated a country store, putting in twelve hours a day, and his father was a maintenance worker for a cable company. Their two boys grew up appreciating what hard work was all about. Tim was an accomplished violinist from third grade. He ranked number one in his senior year of high school. A full scholarship was offered to Tim to play and study violin, but he turned that down to study Chemistry and Biology at Lycoming College in Williamsport, PA. Subsequently, he went on to Penn. State and U. Michigan to earn his M.S. and Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. He continued to play the violin as a hobby throughout his life. There has always been something about life, chemistry, and the violin that was inseparable to Tim.

During an industry-sponsored event at a nice resort in Florida, my wife and I were at a round dinner table together with Tim Merkel and his wife and two other couple. I suggested we go around the table and tell the story of how we each met the person who later become our wife. The Merkels went first: Tim was 19 when he was set up on a blind date. At the time, he worked in Dairy Queen along with this 16-year-old girl who arranged the blind date for her older sister. Tim wore his best attire and somewhat nervously headed to his coworker’s home. The blind date did not have an easy time getting ready either. She changed a few dresses until settling for the one she thought he would like, all along while her younger sibling was keeping Tim company on the front steps of their house.

I have been associated with Tim as a competitor, colleague, and customer, and through it all, as a friend. As competitors, we both sided with the industry against the first ever ambiguous copper in brake pad study offered at the Stanford University Law School back in 1995 (see my two-part blog “Whatever happened to the copper in the brake pad”.) A few years later, sitting in his Winchester, Virginia office we agreed that the environmentalists had a valid point, although the approach might have been questionable. He led asbestos removal from commercial vehicle brakes first in the early 1980s yielding Tim the IC Industries (the parent company of Abex) Chairman Award in 1984 for his dedication, performance, and achievements. People who worked for him remember Dr. Tim not only as a great boss, but a great friend who would give 110% effort to his projects. Tim’s responsibilities extended from Winchester, VA to Abex’s subsidiaries and joint ventures in Germany, Italy, France, Australia with extended technical relationship in Japan.

Dr. Merkel started working for Abex in Mahwah, New Jersey, in 1978. Briefly, he left Abex for a non-friction company in 1988, returning to Abex in Winchester, Virginia in 1989 where he worked until his retirement in 2001. The company changed hands and owners at different times, the last of which was Federal Mogul. Before his retirement, Tim underwent open heart surgery. I met him a few months after his operation. We had a nice chat, at times reminiscing of the days of nonstop working. As we shook hands goodbye, he whispered in my ear “believe me, our companies will be around long after we’re gone…”

During his retirement, for several years he worked as an expert witness in litigation relating to brake friction materials. But in his heart of hearts, Tim was an environmentalist who liked to help people’s quality of life by utilizing technology. It was under such a mental mission that he became Chief Technology Officer for Brake Pad Waste Collection System with an eye towards capturing brake emissions at the source, before becoming airborne. His role was later expanded to focus on tire waste at the source as well. His analytical mind made him the go-to person for technical write ups and contacts.

Back to the “blind date.” Tim told the 16-year-old sister the next day that it wasn’t going to work! Asked why, he simply responded that it was “her,” Theresa, he was interested in, and not her older sister. Theresa and Tim went on to date for five years before marrying, having two children and ultimately four granddaughters who meant the world to Tim.

Dr. Tim Merkel passed peacefully while sleeping on May 1,2023. He was 80 years old. He will always be remembered for his positive technological contributions to the brake friction industry and his love for a safer environment…

Many thanks to Dr. Tim Merkel’s coworkers, who graciously spent time with me over the phone remembering the man, the vertical boss who amongst other things gave away his Penn State football tickets just to light up a colleague’s weekend. A very special thanks to Ms. Theresa Merkel for her contribution to this article. We carry forward all the memories he has left us.

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