As word spread through Maryland yesterday that Philip Merrill was missing after a Saturday afternoon sailing excursion, friends and community leaders hoped for the best as they took stock of the many contributions of the philanthropic publisher-turned-diplomat.
An avid sailor, Merrill is well-known in Annapolis and Washington for his strong opinions, boundless energy and high standards.
Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens said she couldn't "imagine this county without him."
"I am ill about this," she said.
Noting Merrill's many contributions to scholarships and preservation of the Chesapeake Bay, she called him "one of the extraordinary intellects that we had in the county."
Merrill earned his fortune in publishing and real estate, buying The Capital newspaper in Annapolis in 1968 while working at the State Department. He spent most of his life as a publisher, eventually coming to own several other Maryland newspapers and Washingtonian magazine.
He also took on several prominent government roles, including serving as the assistant secretary-general at NATO in the late 1990s and, more recently, president and chairman of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, to fill out a term that ended last year.
Merrill "inspired us to put out the best product that we could," said Tom Marquardt, executive editor of The Capital. He described Merrill as "forever an optimist about the future of newspapers."
Merrill traveled in elite circles in Washington and Maryland, hosting parties at his Arnold home twice a year that were attended by political and cultural luminaries. Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of State Colin Powell were guests at his home.
Though he held federal positions under Republican administrations, Merrill's political opinions are difficult to pin down, said Maryland GOP Chairman John Kane. He said Merrill, whom he has known for 10 years, is "the epitome of an open book," adding that he was willing to "listen to different thoughts."
In 2001, Merrill gave $10 million to the University of Maryland's College of Journalism, one of the top 10 financial gifts in the school's history. The college is now known as the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
"In terms of impact, it's probably among the top two or three," said Brodie Remington, spokesman for the university.
Merrill's stated goal with the gift was to make Maryland's journalism school the best in the country. He specified that the money should be spent within 18 years and go to improving equipment, establishing three endowed chairs on the faculty and supporting students through scholarships and fellowships.
"It's because of him that would-be journalists can afford to go to school and get the grounding he wanted them to get," said Steve Crane, assistant dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism. "Say what you want about him, but the man put his money where his mouth is."
Reese Cleghorn, former dean of Maryland's journalism school and a friend, said Merrill was instrumental not only in the journalism school's success but also Maryland's school of public policy.
Merrill loves to argue and can be a combative person - but friends say he is also willing to change his mind. A centrist who leaned more right than left in recent years, he has little tolerance for people who had strong opinions in spite of their own ignorance, Cleghorn said.
"He's had a great impact on the state in a philanthropic way," Cleghorn said. "He's someone who really appreciates the value of some institutions, particularly higher education and the environment."
In 2003, Merrill pledged $4 million to the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.
When the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's new headquarters, named the Philip Merrill Environmental Center, opened in 2000, it was called the nation's "greenest," or most environmentally sensitive, building.
Merrill contributed $7.5 million for the building, which sits on 31 acres and has solar-heated rooms, flushless, composting toilets, natural ventilation and rooftop cisterns that catch rainwater for hand-washing.
William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called Merrill "a visionary."
"He got involved with us at the ground floor, building this building. He wanted it to be the greenest building in the world," Baker said.
Baker described Merrill as "enormously energetic."
"He threw himself into everything that he got involved in and threw himself into everything that he was passionate about," Baker said. He described Merrill as "a man with a wonderful smile, a very warm person."
"I can't imagine what happened, because he was a very experienced sailor," said Wayne A. Mills, past board chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
"I've been thinking all day that maybe we'll get some news, that maybe he swam ashore," Mills said. "But the longer it goes, the more concerned I am."