Colleagues recall man of complexity

Philip Merrill 1934-2006


A memorial service will be held Thursday in Washington for Philip Merrill, the newspaper publisher, philanthropist and former diplomat who disappeared from his yacht Saturday while sailing the Chesapeake Bay.

The search continues for the body of Mr. Merrill, who was chairman of Capital-Gazette Communications Inc., publishers of The Capital of Annapolis and Washingtonian magazine.

He was, friends and associates said this week, passionate, intelligent and fiercely inquisitive - a complex man whose sometimes gruff manner was tempered by a playful nature.

Mr. Merrill, 72, was born in Baltimore and raised in New York and Connecticut. Most recently, he had been living on the Severn River in Arnold. An avid yachtsman, he learned to sail at 7 and had been boating on the Chesapeake since 1958.

He served under several presidential administrations between the 1960s and 2005 as a diplomat, negotiator and a consultant on issues of national security.

He donated millions of dollars to the University of Maryland's journalism college, which bears his name, and to the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"He was a brilliant businessman who began his life in a Baltimore rowhouse. He came from a humble background, and his life is a real rags-to-riches story," said J. Stanley Heuisler, who once worked for Mr. Merrill at Baltimore magazine.

Eliot Cohen, a professor at the School for Advanced International Studies, described Mr. Merrill as "a guy you could argue with."

"His public persona was loud and brash," he said, adding that Mr. Merrill had "a voracious intellect ... tremendous curiosity, a penetrating voice, a wonderful laugh. [He was] someone you would go to for advice - a font of hardheaded wisdom."

Reese Cleghorn, former dean of the journalism college at the University of Maryland, College Park, called Mr. Merrill "a real individual. Some people didn't like him at all. Some people loved him." Mr. Merrill "had a real assertive, gruff manner sometimes. ... He would be very assertive and loud if he wanted to be, but he could change his mind. He wasn't a brick wall."

Born Philip Merrill Levine, Mr. Merrill dropped Levine from his name as a young man. His father was a Russian immigrant who worked in public relations and radio.

Mr. Merrill graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor's degree in 1955 and was an editor of his college paper. He worked for a time as a reporter in New Jersey. He also served in the Merchant Marine and in the Army and briefly worked in advertising in New York City.

He began his career in the State Department in 1961 and worked there until 1968. Along the way, he studied in the Harvard Business School's Program for Management Development, graduating in 1963.

In 1988, Merrill was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Service by the secretary of defense. He then served on the Defense Policy Board and as counselor to the under-secretary of defense for policy, and was assistant secretary general of NATO in Brussels from 1990 to 1992.

Mr. Merrill represented the United States in negotiations on the Law of the Sea Conference and the International Telecommunications Union. He also served as the State Department's senior intelligence analyst for South Asia.

In 2002, he was sworn in by his friend, Vice President Dick Cheney, as president and chairman of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, which assists in financing the export of U.S. goods and services to foreign markets. He served until his term expired last year.

"Phil was one of those rare individuals who was good at everything he ever tried, and he made major contributions - public, business and philanthropic. His dedication to the nation and his devotion to his family were an inspiration to all of us who were privileged to know him," said the vice president in a statement.

Mr. Cheney's wife, Lynne, worked at Washingtonian magazine for several years. The two couples had been close friends for decades, according to the statement.

Mr. Merrill's publishing career began in 1968 with the purchase of the former Annapolis Evening Capital. Estimates for the sale range between $3 million and $3.5 million, according to James Brown, president and general manager of Capital-Gazette. Mr. Merrill, who was then working for the State Department, did not have a personal fortune to use for the purchase, according to friends and former colleagues.

"He may have done some consulting" to make some extra money, said Tom Marquardt, executive editor of Capital-Gazette Newspapers. "Honestly, he just scrambled to get the money, and he brought in partners," said Mr. Marquardt. "It definitely wasn't an inheritance. He was a self-made man right from the start."

Mr. Brown added that Mr. Merrill borrowed money from friends, leveraged real estate and sold some savings bonds to raise the cash.

"He put in all the money he could," Mr. Brown said. "His vision, his dream, his drive was he was going to have enough [of a share] to be in control."

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