A force of nature

June 15, 2006

During the long days of searching since Philip Merrill's sailboat turned up in the Chesapeake Bay on Saturday without him, family and friends have had difficulty accepting his likely demise. The wind and rough seas seemed no match for the brilliant and blustery Annapolis publisher.

Variously described in tributes as a force of nature and larger than life, Mr. Merrill, 72, cut a broad and bold swath through this region and capitals around the world. Through shrewd business acumen, he made himself a millionaire many times over at the same time he was honing his skills as a professional diplomat.

In recent years, Mr. Merrill capped these achievements by giving away some of his fortune - including a $10 million gift to the University of Maryland College of Journalism that now bears his name and a $7.5 million donation toward the innovative "green" headquarters of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in which he had long been active.

"It's payback time," Mr. Merrill told The Sun in a 2001 interview. "The money was basically made in this state, and I want to put it back in the state."

Mr. Merrill's formula for success at the Capital-Gazette newspapers, which he bought in 1968, was a heavy focus on local coverage. His mantra for reporters at the Annapolis daily, the biweekly Maryland Gazette in Glen Burnie and another weekly in Bowie was "names, names, names." His firm belief that people were most interested in reading about themselves, particularly in small-town newspapers, paid off in near-blanket circulation figures for the Annapolis Capital.

He was equally at home, though, in Washington, where he published Washingtonian magazine and served four administrations, most recently as president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank for President Bush.

Phil Merrill's legacy will doubtless extend into each of many arenas where he made his considerable presence felt. But perhaps none more so than in fostering a stewardship for his beloved Chesapeake Bay, where, characteristically ignoring the whitecaps, he sailed off happily alone on what appears to have been his final day.

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