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Colleagues recall man of complexity


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."

Mr. Merrill also owned Baltimore magazine from 1977 to 1992.

"Phil was always interested in big ideas," said Mr. Heuisler, who was editor of Baltimore magazine when Mr. Merrill purchased it from the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce. "And when he called you, you knew it was something important. He loved to argue over ideas and didn't like poorly framed arguments. He had strong opinions about everything."

As for Mr. Merrill's "legendary temper, it sure didn't drive any of his senior people away," said Mr. Heuisler. "He just hired people he trusted and respected and let them run with the ball. ... When he went off like a rocket occasionally, it was almost always for a good reason, and it sure cleared the air of ambiguities." And he noted that Mr. Merrill "was a softy to his kids."

As publisher of Baltimore magazine, Mr. Merrill had strong opinions about The Sun. After an editorial critical of the magazine ran in the newspaper in 1978, Mr. Merrill responded with a letter to the editor that called The Sun's Sunday magazine "pathetically boring and utterly irrelevant" and suggested The Sun needed a "corporate psychiatrist."

Mr. Cleghorn said that Mr. Merrill was a shrewd businessman.

"He didn't try to micromanage his newspapers and magazines, although sometimes he would jump in with both feet on some things," Mr. Cleghorn said, adding that he overheard a person at a party ask Mr. Merrill about a detail of his publishing business.

"That's beneath my level of competence," is the reply that Mr. Cleghorn remembers.

"He didn't pretend to know everything. His job was to be at the top, and he was good at that. Otherwise, he wouldn't have become as rich as he was," Mr. Cleghorn said.

But talking about his money sometimes brought out Mr. Merrill's boyish nature, Mr. Cleghorn said. At another social engagement, Mr. Merrill, with a drink in his hand, announced that he might be the richest person in Maryland. Or the second.

"He liked to make money, he liked to spend money, though not extravagantly, and he liked to give away money," Mr. Cleghorn said.

Mr. Merrill gave $10 million to the University of Maryland's journalism school, and $4 million more to the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.

Another beneficiary was the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, where he served on the board of directors for more than two decades. He donated $7.5 million to the foundation to create the Philip Merrill Environmental Center as its headquarters.

Mr. Merrill and his wife, Eleanor "Ellie" Merrill, whom he married in 1960, lived on the Severn River near Annapolis. Neighbor John Page Williams, a senior naturalist for the foundation, would often see Mr. Merrill sailing Merrilly, his 41-foot sailboat, on the Severn.

"He loved the water, loved the bay and believed it could be saved," Mr. Williams said. "He passionately wanted to make that happen."

A decade ago, Mr. Merrill began raising the possibility of creating a Chesapeake Bay National Park. Recently, he was talking about trying to garner federal support for dealing with agricultural and stormwater runoff into the bay.

The reason for Mr. Merrill's passion was simple: He loved being on the bay, Mr. Williams said.

"He loved to sail that boat. He loved to feel Merrilly walking on the water with a bone in her teeth," Mr. Williams said, using nautical expressions that evoke the image of a boat flying along under sail.

"It was just that kind of day Saturday," said Mr. Williams, adding that he'd taken his own boat out Monday to help in the search for Mr. Merrill. "She must've been exhilarating on Saturday, a big strong boat that he knew very well ... a big strong wind on his back that would make her sing. And I'm sure she was singing."

The color of Merrilly, a blueish-green, is a custom color, said Gary Jobson, an ESPN analyst who once worked for Mr. Merrill at The Capital. In 1987, Mr. Merrill was so enamored of the boat that won the America's Cup, the Stars and Stripes, that he had his boat painted to match.

"It looked good in the water," Mr. Jobson said. "The color matches the water."

Among his many positions, Mr. Merrill served as a trustee of the Aspen Institute, Johns Hopkins University and Corcoran Gallery of Art. He was vice chairman of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a U.S. director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

He also served on other boards, including those of Cornell University, the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, the Washington Airports Task Force, and Genesco, a New York Stock Exchange company.

Mr. Merrill was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Chief Executives Organization and the World Presidents' Organization.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, 1301 Constitution Ave., in Washington.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Merrill is survived by a son, Douglas, 39, of Shelbourne, Vt.; two daughters, Catherine, 37, of Washington, and Nancy, 32, of Arlington, Va.; and four grandchildren.

Sun reporters Jamie Stiehm and Frederick N. Rasmussen and Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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