Cherry Emerson grew up in Atlanta with music on his mind.

At 12, he sold Coca-Cola to construction workers in his neighborhood to earn money to buy a piano. Borrowing $3 from his mother to get started, he paid her back the next day. After two summers, he had saved $685.02 and bought a Steinway Grand. That piano now stands in his livingroom in Atlanta. “I wouldn’t part with it for a million dollars,” he says.

Although Emerson loved music, he planned to become an engineer like his father. After all, he says, it was engineering that made invention of the first piano possible.

After earning a degree from Emory University in Georgia, Emerson received a master of science degree from MIT in 1941. Later, he worked for seven years at Monsanto Chemical Company. Then he and colleague Bill Cuming founded their own firm, Emerson & Cuming Inc., of Canton, Ma., a manufacturer of specialty chemicals.

Over the next 31 years, it became a worldwide firm in the field of material sciences. It employed 700 people and sold 450 products in four countries. Among the company’s products was a lightweight ceramic particle still used by NASA for the heat shield. Emerson holds seven patents. Among his inventions is the first system for air-roasting peanuts.

He retired

In 1978, Emerson sold the company. Two years later, he retired to Sea Island in Georgia, but after a while, he says, the island grew dull.

“Music had always been a big part of my life,” he says, adding that there wasn’t much music on the island. There was a Mozart Society, but it didn’t do much, says Emerson, who along with his wife, Mary, then moved back to Atlanta where Emerson pursued more cultural and intellectual activities. He got involved in the Atlanta Opera Association and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He also helped to establish three Atlanta Chamber Music Groups, where the music of Beethoven, Mozart, and Shubert was, well, music to his ears.

“If I can leave a piece of music while whistling the tune, then to me that music is great,” he says.

Emerson says that his engineering background made it possible to appreciate music even more. For example, he says, Boston’s Symphony Hall was designed by Harvard physicist Wallace Clement Sabine who tested in his lab every material that went into the hall. It was the first major acoustic engineering project in this country. The outcome, he says, was an engineering masterpiece.

“It is, to this day, the best music hall in this world. And I’ve heard hundreds of them,” Emerson says. “It’s just the best there is.”

Beethoven’s 7th Symphony is one of his greatest joys. He knows the piece note by note. He says that to have heard former BSO Conductor Serge Koussevitsky play Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in that hall, nearly brought him to tears because it was so inspiring.

Emerson is one of MIT’s top donors to the arts. On this day he is sitting in the MIT Music Library, a building he helped make possible by a generous financial gift given for his mother-in-law, Rosalind Denny Lewis. It was a small price to pay, says this man who believes that music can affect nearly everything that happens.

Recently, Emerson also made a large gift to MIT’s Advanced Music Performance scholarship. Helping others is the big reason he gives, he says, but also it is a way to give back some of what he got from MIT.

The most rewarding experience in life, he says, is to give to people and then watch them turn around and give to others. It adds to life depth and meaning.

First date

Emerson and his wife, Mary, have been married for 56 years. He still remembers their first date. They went to Boston’s Symphony Hall, where from the second balcony they heard Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto. Ever since, the couple has been seeking out the best music around the world.

They have six children, 12 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. Many in the family are music lovers.

For fun, Emerson plays golf. One of the reasons he likes the game, he says, is not only the camaraderie, but commiserating with his friends on the bad shots. He also enjoys woodworking and recently crafted two cradles for his great grandsons.

He says if this story only could say one thing, he’d want it to say that MIT can have a powerful effect on a life. “My respect for MIT is enormous,” he says. “It called me to live a life for excellence and for reaching the highest standard.”