The Washingtonian’s Merrill Tribute

In their latest issue (August), the Washingtonian magazine runs a lengthy and moving tribute to the late Phil Merill. See the tribute when you click below…


As we struggle with our tragedy, we are overwhelmed by the outpouring of prayers and support that have stretched from down the street to across the world. Phil touched many lives, but until now we had no idea of how many. Thank you all.

From the remarks of Vice President Richard Cheney at the June 22 memorial service for Philip Merrill at the Mellon Auditorium:
Phil Merrill was a family man, a business leader, a distinguished public servant, and someone all of us were proud to count as a friend. To know such a man is one of life’s true pleasures. We deeply regret his passing, and we are filled with admiration for his good life.

Phil Merrill first arrived in Washington some 45 years ago as a young analyst in the State Department. As with everything else he did in life, Phil was good at his job. But he grew restless and decided to set out on his own. I think early in his career Phil figured out that he wasn’t really a company man–unless he owned the company. He followed his star and embarked on one of the truly great careers as a businessman. He seemed to have all the right instincts: how to assess risks, when to make a move, how to find good people.

Phil was an encourager. He saw the good in people, brought it out in them, and spoke of it generously. It was obvious that he loved to make a new acquaintance, introduce people, and establish new connections. He was always happy to help someone find direction. And he would rejoice in their success.

Quite naturally, people were drawn to him. You couldn’t help but like a man so authentic, so intelligent, and so enthusiastic. If you walked into a room of 200 people and saw Phil Merrill, you wanted to talk to Phil. The conversation would be about current events or books or the Chesapeake or great ideas or some new person Phil wanted you to know about. I’ve rarely encountered someone with such an appetite for information, who acquired it from such an incredible array of sources. And Phil’s well-stocked mind was also a great filter–sorting and analyzing and turning knowledge into wisdom.

We will all miss Phil Merrill. And the United States of America will honor his memory.

From Senator Barbara Mikulski:
Phil Merrill died as he lived–in perpetual motion doing what he loved. His passions ranged from the Center for Security Policy and NATO to the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He never did anything casually and was vice president of nothing.

Philip exhausted you with the breadth of his knowledge, the degree of his commitment, and the depth of his reserves and resources. No challenge was too large for his endeavor and no detail too small for his attention. He appeared to be all that anyone would ever want to be: patriot, humanitarian, philanthropist, public servant, businessman, journalist, and civic activist.

From Jim Lambright, Phil’s colleague and successor as president of the Export-Import Bank:

Phil shared his energy and enthusiasm with all those around him. He made a positive difference in so many lives. Engaged with the world, larger than life, Phil was a man in motion. He went after life with a certain zeal. And he flourished in it. If the life well lived is a function of exercising your full capabilities while staying true to yourself and serving the greater good, then Phil Merrill lived it.

From the remarks of Washingtonian editor Jack Limpert at the memorial service:

A Phil story. We’re going to a noon luncheon meeting of the Federal City Council at the Madison Hotel. We figure we’ll leave 15 minutes early and walk the six blocks.

At 11:45 I go to the door of Phil’s office–he’s on the phone. He holds up one finger–I’ll just be a minute. 11:50, 11:55, 12–just one more minute. Finally a little after 12, Phil gets off the phone and comes barreling out of his office.

We get down on L Street and I say, “We’re running late–should we catch a cab?” Phil says, “No, we can get there faster walking. Let’s do what I used to do in the Army–we-ll run 30 paces, walk 30 paces, run 30 paces.”

And he takes off, running down L Street. We do this run-walk all the way to the Madison. Phil goes in and starts shaking hands. I’m watching him and thinking: About 500 people out on L Street saw this man in a gray suit being chased by a guy in a blue suit, and they’ve got to be wondering if the blue suit ever caught up with him–and if anyone got arrested.

Trying to keep up with Phil–it wasn’t always easy, but it was always interesting.

From the remarks by former CIA director James Woolsey at the memorial service:

When Phil Merrill was 16 he needed a job and decided he wanted to go to sea. But he had no identification that would get him into the union hiring hall in Hell’s Kitchen. So the resourceful adolescent went out and got an envelope, stamped and addressed it, wrote special delivery on it in large letters, and walked in with no problem.
Once he found the man who was signing up seamen, he talked his way into a job. Phil went to sea as an ordinary seaman and paid a substantial share of his cost of college from his seaman’s earnings.
He needed the independence and opportunity that a college degree would bring. He went after it with a slightly mischievous flair and in a creative but simple way that somehow you know you wouldn’t have thought of.

From Leslie Milk, lifestyle editor at The Washingtonian:
In a city full of self-important people, Phil was the least pretentious person I know.

I wanted Phil to write an autobiography. I knew that he had worked with Mike Wallace after graduating from Cornell and had paid for part of his college education by working as a seaman.

But Phil thought his story wasn’t that interesting. Instead, he gave me a copy of an oral history he did for the Foreign Service Institute.

Here is a passage in that history:

“I went to sea when I was 16, shipping out of a union hall in Hell’s Kitchen. I’m still, believe it or not, a card-carrying member of the National Maritime Union.

“I had papers as a messman, wiper, and ordinary seaman. I remember my first voyage out of Newark bound for Bremerhaven. To this day I can recall the first feel, the lift, of blue water and the sense of adventure that came with that. Every time I sail down the Severn River and hit the swell of the Chesapeake Bay I get that same feeling. It is step one, not to the Eastern Shore but to Cape Horn or Australia–to the unknown.”

From Tom Korologos, US ambassador to Belgium:

Phil and Ellie were the first two people I met when I went to Washington in 1962 to work on Capitol Hill. Phil worked for Chet Bowles, and Ellie for Senator Kenneth Keating. For more than 40 years Phil has been a great friend, adviser, colleague, promoter of worthy causes, and genuinely amazing character. Truly amazing.
One of my fondest memories came when he asked me to help with his confirmation as president of the Export-Import Bank. As usual he was bouncing around in the state we all came to know and love but to the point where I had to calm him down before he went to the Senate committee.

I said: “Phil. You are irrepressible. Repress it.”

He did, and he was confirmed. Later he said he was going to name his next boat Irrepressible. What a loss–a loss to the family, the community, and the country. He was truly irrepressible and certainly irreplaceable.

From lobbyist and former White House aide Anne Wexler:
Phil was a special person. He had a booming voice but also a booming heart.

From lifelong friend Gordon White:

Phil did much for journalism. At Cornell he was a hard but fair taskmaster as managing editor. I remember his marking up issues of the Sun with his red crayon until there was nowhere else to write. He demanded high standards from the beginning, and with the publications he owned he hired good and talented people and let them do their best. Rest in peace, good and faithful friend.

From Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity University:

Phil never took his readers, colleagues, and friends for granted; he had a large capacity for making everyone feel welcome, important, heard. I can hardly begin to miss him, because I still can’t quite believe he’s gone.

From John Hillen, assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs:

Phil completely changed my life when he called out of the blue ten years ago to talk about some policy piece I had written. We became friends, he encouraged me to go into business, got me involved in the unique leadership approach at the Aspen Institute, and helped me to recognize the infinite vistas of American life that are available to people who take leadership seriously. I never, never failed to be inspired by Phil–every lunch, every visit, every ball game, every phone conversation.

Notes from a breakfast that economic consultant David Smick had with Phil Merrill on June 9, 2006:

We talked about his public role in Washington. He said that at this stage of his life, he was less enamored of prestige and more of how he could make a difference given his strengths and weaknesses. He said that he believed his greatest strength was the ability to identify good people. He said: “I can spot the imaginative ones, the ones who are going to break out and make a difference.” He listed several dozen he had identified early who made it big. He offered these names with an immense sense of pride.

A poem written by Nancy Merrill to her father on April 28, 1993, when she was a freshman at Cornell:

Dad,
You gave me the freedom and security
To explore the seas and soar the skies.
You’ve challenged my mind and inspired
my spirit.
I have heard your words of wisdom,
Of encouragement and advice.
You have been there when I needed you
When I was sick and scared and all alone.

The Man on the Moon has smiled at us
And has bestowed some wonderful gifts:
To laugh at the world and cry at a song,
To see what can be and know what is there,
To hold on with love and let go without fear,
To be more than I am, because you have

been there.
I love you and miss you.
Nancy

From William J. Byron, SJ, the former president of Catholic University:

In an interview I had with him for a book I was writing on business ethics, Phil told me that he thought the best way to learn how to do the right thing in business is to surround yourself with people of character. He didn’t think that “either commitment or character could be taught in an ethics class.” Then he added, “If your book can shed some light on all this, I would love to read it. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to try to learn what’s right by surrounding myself with people of character.”

From former Washington Post columnist Bill Raspberry:
We are just back from the lovely memorial service, and we’re still marveling at the wonderful job everyone did of putting Phil together: outspoken critic, astute businessman, irrepressible sportsman, generous philanthropist, faithful friend, adoring husband and father–and head of an extraordinarily close-knit family. I hope you find some solace in the outpouring of love, affection, and respect that has been washing over the Merrill family.

From Matthew Finlay, a family friend:

Phil Merrill was a hurricane in a world of gentle breezes. It was an honor to have known him.

From Thomas Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland:

Phil and his wife, Ellie, have been avid supporters of this school for a quarter of a century, and their philanthropy has improved the lives of countless of our students.

Phil believed passionately in the transformational power of higher education. As a young man he benefited from opportunities extended to him, and he spent much of his adult life providing such opportunities to others. His legacy will live on in their accomplishments.

Phil also believed in the importance of journalism in a democratic society, and he backed up that belief with his remarkable gift to this school. We will continue to try to be good stewards of that investment. A school could not have had a better patron, and we could not have had a better friend.

From Wati Alvarez-Correa, who worked as an assistant to Phil Merrill at The Washingtonian:

It was evident from the laughter and teasing in the family how much they all loved one another. Ellie was the anchor to Phil’s energetic brilliance. He looked to her for guidance and calm. How she managed to keep up with him, smiling and agreeable, is a tribute to her love for him.

He was a wonderful boss. He was generous and warm-hearted, and only those who knew him well knew what a soft touch he really was. The years I worked at The Washingtonian were always interesting because of Phil’s presence. His laughter and opinions could be heard throughout the office, and there was no doubt when “Phil was in.” He kept everyone on their toes and kept the atmosphere charged.
Yes, he could be volatile, but he laughed much more than he yelled. He always thanked me and made me feel appreciated and valued. I loved working for him.

From government official and business executive James Roche:
It was Phil who convinced me to leave business and become the Secretary of the Air Force. He believed that we owed our fellow citizens our service and that we should always do in government service what we believed was the right thing to do, even if it angered some politician.

In hindsight, I believe that he was at his very best while “on the water.” The sharpness of his mind was always present, but he really relaxed at anchor, and his humor and warmth and insightfulness were most obvious. He never gave me bad advice, and I tried to do the same for him, always amazed that he actually wanted my advice. He was bigger than life to me, and I will not be able to go to sea again without feeling that lump in my throat which will come from realizing that I won’t be with him at anchor that evening.

Bravo Zulu, Phil. Fair winds and following seas for all eternity.

The wisdom of Phil Merrill as captured in what his friends called Merrillisms:

  • People respond to energy and enthusiasm.
  • Keep your mouth shut in any meeting with more than six people in it.
  • The most important thing an executive does is finding and keeping good people.
  • The government always lies. It’s not intentional; it’s just the way things go.
  • The larger the bureaucracy, the easier it is to run but the harder to change.
  • You can’t succeed in government until you acknowledge that it’s about representation, not efficiency.
  • There are only so many sunny skiing and sailing days in a year; every one counts.
  • The great lesson of life is that no one is in charge.

    From a message that Eliot Cohen, director of the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, sent to students:

    Phil was a diplomat who could be disconcertingly direct, a newspaper owner who relished a great story even if it made powerful friends squirm, a conservative who was an ardent environmentalist, a public servant who accepted high rank without being seduced by it, a patriot who loved his country dearly while cataloging its faults unsparingly.
    He was a man not of contradictions but rather of terrific harmonies. He could argue vehemently and laugh uproariously; he let you know his opinions in no uncertain terms but was one of the best listeners I have ever met. Few men have been so loved by friends and family, employees and associates, without receiving court or indeed signaling any desire for deference.

    From a June 14, 2006, editorial in the Washington Post:

    Mr. Merrill’s ideas about journalism boiled down to a simple philosophy: “Keep it simple, keep it understandable, and if you don’t get it right the first day, get it right the next day.” In striving to heed this sound advice, we will miss Phil Merrill’s large presence.

    From the remarks by Phil’s son, Douglas Merrill, at the memorial service:

    It did not strike me until this past Monday that I may have overlooked the fact that many of the attributes which made my father so great to me he shared with many others. He answered questions, solved problems, helped people. And he loved doing it. And as I considered the letters, articles, and tributes that have been written, I recognized that at least some part of the great loss I am feeling is being shared by a great many others. He was indeed a special man, and I only now understand that many, many people see that, not just his son.

    From remarks by Phil’s daughter Cathy at the memorial service:

    My father was dedicated to making us a very close family, which has been our saving grace. . . . With the exception of the last few weeks of his life, I wanted you to know that the Phil Merrill that you all knew–the one bubbling over with energy, the booming voice of enthusiasm, the one who vacuumed information from your mind, the one that let you know his opinion on any subject, was the same at our dinner table as he was at yours. His personality was simply as he named one of our boats: irrepressible. That is the man I will remember, and that is the man I ask you to remember.