Martin Foundation funds ecological engine for Merry Lea’s new green collegiate facility

WOLF LAKE, Ind. – Merry Lea Environmental Center’s plans for a collegiate facility received a boost April 27 when Executive Director Luke Gascho opened his mail and found a check for $150,000.

This generous gift from the Martin Foundation is earmarked for the future facility’s ecological engine, a system that will treat wastewater by using plants and microorganisms to filter and break down wastes.

Lee and Geraldine Martin of Elkhart, Ind., began the Martin Foundation in 1953 and frequently allocated its resources to support sustainable technology and environmental education. The couple moved to Naples, Fla., in 2002; Lee died in 2003.

“I know Lee would have been excited to sponsor this project; he was always interested in water systems,” Geraldine Martin told Gascho when she made the donation.

Lee Martin graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s school of Engineering in 1943 and spent his career with NIBCO, an Indiana-based company that is a leading manufacturer of pipe fittings, valves and plumbing fixtures. Lee was the third generation of the Martin family to head NIBCO, providing leadership from 1957 to 1995. Company headquarters is in Elkhart and one of NIBCO’s plants is located just south of Goshen College on County Road 38.

Lee and Geraldine Martin have had a relationship with Goshen College since the 1980s when they worked with then-President J. Lawrence Burkholder to sponsor early aspects of the China educational exchange and Study-Service Term program. In 1999, the couple learned from the Goshen College Bulletin that the college had begun an environmental studies program. The Martin Foundation responded with enthusiasm and a gift of $100,000, to be used for scholarships for students in this major.

In 2000, Lee and Geraldine enjoyed their first visit to Merry Lea. “I feel like a relationship has begun,” Martin told Gascho after watching a group of youth exploring geology in Merry Lea’s gravel pit during the tour. Following the visit, the Martins donated $50,000 toward Merry Lea’s future collegiate facility.

“The Martins have had a long-term commitment to sustainability,” observes Gascho. “It showed in how they lived their lives and in how they allocated their resources.” He points to the Martin Foundation’s financial support of Lee’s alma mater, MIT, as another example of the couple’s desire to care for the earth. The Martin Foundation endows a professorship in environmental studies at MIT and sponsors graduate fellowships in sustainability. The Martin Family Society of Graduate Fellowships in Sustainability is an honor society of top graduate students created to foster collaboration across disciplines on environmental challenges.

Merry Lea’s future collegiate facility is a good example of the cross-disciplinary approach to environmental problems that the Martins preferred to fund. A team of architects, engineers, wastewater specialists and landscape architects worked closely together to design the eight-building complex that will be built in two phases. All had input into the design of the newly funded ecological engine.

Ecological engines, also called living machines, were invented by John Todd of Ocean Arks in the late 1980s. Over 35 of these systems are currently in use worldwide, cleaning up everything from municipal wastes to wastes from a candy factory. Ecological engines purify wastewater by filtering it through a series of tanks and wetland cells containing plants and microorganisms. Water passes through several miniature ecosystems, becoming progressively cleaner along the way. Merry Lea’s ecological engine will be able to handle up to 6,000 gallons of water per day.

About two thirds of the Martins’ donation to Merry Lea will be used to construct the outdoor components of the ecological engine: a septic tank for solid waste; two outdoor wetland cells, a sand filter and infiltration field. These components are part of phase one, which will begin this summer and be completed by the summer of 2005. The remaining $50,000 will be reserved for indoor tanks located in the academic building. A completion date for this second phase has not yet been set.

Gascho continues to seek additional major donors for Merry Lea’s collegiate facility. Those with a special interest in environmentally sustainable solutions to human problems may wish to invest in the facility’s wind generator or solar panels. A gift of $68,000 will cover the wind generator. A gift of $90,000 will cover all solar panels. A gift of $180,000 would build a complete cottage.

Merry Lea, 300 S. 500 W. in Noble County south of Wolf Lake, is a 1,150-acre natural sanctuary for northern Indiana’s plants and animals, provides environmental education for people of all ages and a setting to recreate opportunities that benefit the human body and spirit without exploiting the land. Merry Lea, created with the assistance of the Nature Conservancy and the generosity of Lee A. and Mary Jane Rieth, is owned and operated by Goshen College. For more information, go to or call (260) 799-5869.

Goshen College, established in 1894, is a four-year residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” Kaplan’s “Most Interesting Colleges” guide and U.S.News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit

– by Jennifer Schrock

Editors: For more information, contact News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or