Hundreds pay tribute to Merrill

Family, friends pay tribute to Merrill

June 23, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Nearly 1,000 people packed a memorial service for publisher and diplomat Philip Merrill, where speakers, including Vice President Dick Cheney, remembered him as a dynamic entrepreneur who gave generously to the causes in which he believed.

"You couldn't help [but] like a man who was so authentic, so intelligent and so enthusiastic," Cheney told the crowd. "If you walked into a room with 200 people and saw Phil Merrill, you wanted to talk to Phil."

Most speakers made only oblique references to Merrill's cause of death - acknowledged by family members this week as an apparent suicide.

But R. James Woolsey, who served as Central Intelligence Agency director from 1993 to 1995, discussed his struggle to come to terms with Merrill's death.

After calling Merrill "a skipper with a great heart," Woolsey said, "I can only understand it, that his great heart, which needed an operation some months before somehow betraying him through the body's unfathomable chemistry, leading him to take himself from it."

Merrill had undergone heart surgery a year ago, according to a statement from his family, and his outlook had "dimmed" in the past month. A boater found Merrill's body on Monday, nine days after he disappeared during a solo sailing trip on the Chesapeake Bay. A law enforcement source close to the investigation said Merrill, 72, had suffered a shotgun wound to the head.

Woolsey said: "In any just assessment of Phil Merrill's life, whether by man or God, it must be seen as a tragic single event at the end of a magnificent, generous, delightful, accomplished, loving skipper's life."

The memorial was held at the cavernous Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Between 900 and 1,000 people attended, according to Jenna Mack, who helped plan the event.

The family chose a patriotic rather than religious theme for the event. An American flag and a bouquet of red, white and blue flowers decorated the stage, and an ensemble played snippets of classic American music.

While waiting for the ceremony to begin, guests, who included World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and former New York Times managing editor Eugene L. Roberts Jr., could admire enlarged photos of Merrill and his family posing on a ski slope and aboard sailboats, and read from placards printed with "Merrillisms" - or favorite sayings.

Cheney took the podium first and stressed Merrill's public service, noting that Merrill had taken an oath of office eight times. "To know such a man is one of life's true pleasures, and we deeply regret his passing," Cheney said.

Merrill had headed the Export-Import Bank and held other government posts in addition to running a company that published The Capital newspaper of Annapolis and Washingtonian magazine.

The vice president got a laugh from the crowd when he mentioned the occasionally gruff Merrill's independent streak, saying: "Early in his career, Phil figured out he wasn't a company man unless he owned the company."

Cheney also praised Merrill's philanthropic efforts. Merrill gave millions of dollars to organizations, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the University of Maryland's journalism school and the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.

"If ever a man could be called a cheerful giver, it was Phil Merrill," Cheney said.

John A. Limpert, the editor of Washingtonian, said that the August edition of the magazine would include a tribute to Merrill, and he choked up when explaining that there would be a feature he thought Merrill would really like - a piece that rates the taste of various chocolate chip cookies. Paul Williams, a son-in-law, read the final lines of Limpert's remarks.

University of Maryland President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. spoke of Merrill's $10 million gift to the journalism school, which bears his name.

Merrill's three grown children were composed when they spoke. The crowd laughed when Nancy Merrill, the youngest daughter, recalled growing up with "the world's most embarrassing Dad." And she elicited tears when she read a poem that she had penned and he had framed.

Catherine Merrill Williams, the middle child, said her father was "dedicated to making us a close family, which was our saving grace in the past few weeks."

She remembered enjoying six-week vacations, sailing trips and annual Christmas skiing trips in Aspen, Colo. There was some yelling, but Williams said her father's "bark was worse than his bite."

She recalled hand-written notes that he liked to leave - including one he wrote after the two had argued. It read: "I'm sorry. You were right and I was wrong. ... I'm glad you were strong enough to fight back."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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