The Full Phil  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2006

The Full Phil   

The untimely death of a towering figure Posted June 14, 2006

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


I had gotten into Beijing the evening before, and after a restless night I stumbled down to the hotel's business center to check my e-mail. Four messages from the top was a subject line you never want to see: "Awful news."

The message was from a colleague back at school. It said that Philip Merrill, the publisher, businessman, diplomat and patron of Maryland's College of Journalism, was missing after an apparent sailing accident on the Chesapeake Bay.

The mind reeled. I had seen Phil just the week before, and he was his usual boisterous, very much alive self. That man--72 going on 32 and a highly experienced sailor--could not possibly be the Phil Merrill this bulletin was referring to. I had to read it three or four times before it sank in. Then I realized there were three earlier e-mails bearing the same dreadful news.

A few days later the rescue effort was called off. Phil Merrill, proprietor of Washingtonian magazine and the Annapolis Capital newspaper, was gone.

(Nine days after Phil went missing his body was recovered from the bay, and the Merrill family said autopsy results indicated he apparently had killed himself. This of course only made their profound loss all the more tragic. The family said Phil had seemed somewhat dispirited lately, a situation that may have been aggravated by the heart medication he'd been taking in the past year. But if was feeling low, he certainly managed to conceal it when out in public.)

He is one man it is hard to imagine being silenced. Phil was born loud and excitable, and he stayed that way. When he got in your face about something, as he often did, his index finger jabbing at you for emphasis, you were on the receiving end of what my colleague Rem Rieder called "the full Phil."

That was the passion talking, and Phil was passionate about a lot. Nothing about him was halfway. He had great enthusiasms and great antagonisms. As a publisher he was a throwback to a more colorful time, in that he was not remotely bashful about using his publications to fight battles and persecute errant (to his mind) politicians. Phil probably infuriated most of the important figures in Maryland at one time or another. Didn't bother him a bit. It was all part of the rough and tumble that he loved.

I first got acquainted with Phil shortly after being named journalism dean at Maryland early in 2000. He invited my wife and me to come out one Saturday for a bite of lunch and "a little chat." We got there at 11:30. We started talking...and talking...and talking. Phil was interested in everything--the future of news, the value of journalism education, even The New Yorker (he had already read my book on that subject). We finally finished our luncheon "chat" at 5:30.

That was Phil in a nutshell: expansive, garrulous, keenly and genuinely interested in what you thought and not bashful in telling you what HE thought.

Phil had a great roaring laugh, which was well paired with a droll sense of humor. That humor was often self-deprecating, which people appreciated about him, but it was just as likely to be aimed at you. Not long ago Phil deftly inserted the needle into yours truly. We were catching up on how things were going at the school. I tried to sound modest in mentioning that I had just won a national award as journalism dean of the year. He let a Jack Benny beat go by and then deadpanned, "That's probably not a very big pool, is it?" I snorted with laughter as he flashed that Cheshire cat grin we all knew so well.

Indeed, Phil possessed one of the quickest and most analytical minds I've ever encountered, and though he never quite acquired the diplomat's polish--nor cared to--he had the respect of those in diplomatic and defense circles from both parties. He was as adept talking about missile throw-weights and nuclear power in China as he was about classified ads and CPM. Invariably I came away from our conversations looking at some important issue in a fresh way.

But neither did Phil lack for detractors. I've talked to people who were bruised or worse for having been in the way as this brilliant, driven, hungry young man bulldozed his way to business and social success. I never talked with Phil directly about that, but I always had the sense that, looking back, he might well have done some things differently if given the chance.

Maybe I'm wrong about that. But Phil was never standing still, and more than most people he was intent on learning something new every day of his life.

All I can really testify to is the Phil Merrill of the last decade--the generous patron who was endlessly supportive of this school but would no more tell me how to run it than I would have presumed to tell him how to run the Export-Import Bank. All deans should be so lucky.

He and his wonderful, eternally patient wife, Ellie, have stood behind the College of Journalism for a quarter century--financially, yes, but in every other conceivable way. Ellie is the longtime chair of our Board of Visitors. Suffice it to say that countless of our students' lives have been improved because of the Merrills' extraordinary commitment.

Phil loved that. He loved being an owner. He loved having influence, and he loved using it. He loved sailing. He loved Ellie and their close-knit family, who are missing him so. And he loved giving back.

Phil often said he had been extended many opportunities over the years, and he spent much of his adult life doing the same for others. And that, I think, will be his true legacy.

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