It was in early 2000, shortly after I was named Maryland's journalism dean. Phil invited my wife and me to come out to his home 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.
A few days after my commentary appeared, there was a remarkable memorial service for Phil. Seats for about 900 people had been set up in the dignified Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium along Washington, D.C.'s National Mall, but more than 1,000 friends and colleagues of Phil crammed into the place. Standees lined the back of the hall.
During the reception afterward, I sought out Jack Limpert, the extraordinary and longtime editor of Phil's Washingtonian magazine. Jack and Phil had worked literally side by side for more than a quarter of a century, and it was clear from Jack's moving tribute that he had lost not just a publisher but a brother.
Jack's face looked haggard from the ordeal of Phil's death, but when he saw me he beamed.
I'll go you one better, he said to me. When Phil and his wife, Ellie, bought the Washingtonian in 1978, Phil invited Jack out to his home for "a little chat," also ostensibly over lunch. "Finally it's 9 o'clock at night," Jack said, laughing, "and little Nancy is grabbing Phil by the sleeve and saying, 'Daddy, let this poor man go home.'"
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.
As you have read, what was originally thought a sailing accident turned out to be an apparent suicide. The family said Phil had seemed somewhat dispirited, a situation that may have been aggravated by the cardiac medication he'd been taking in the past year following heart surgery. I had seen Phil several times in the weeks leading up to his death, and whatever terrible depression had him in its clutches, he certainly managed to conceal it from his friends.
Even now I cannot get my head around the idea that Phil Merrill is gone. 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.
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 knew so well.
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. Former CIA Director James Woolsey, a close friend, gave one of the eulogies at the memorial service. So did Vice President Dick Cheney, another close friend. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, yet another friend, was in the audience. Indeed, Phil was as adept talking about missile throw-weights and nuclear power in China as he was about classified ads and CPM. But like the rest of us, Washington's power elite mostly enjoyed Phil for his wonderful company.
The vice president related an especially funny and telling anecdote about Phil. The last of his many government appointments was as president of the Export-Import Bank. This required Senate confirmation. As per usual, Phil had a counselor-handler for the hearings, a senior diplomat. "Phil, you are irrepressible," his adviser said as Phil was about to enter the hearings. "Repress it."
Not a chance.
Some weeks ago, in an online commentary on this subject, I related the story of my first real encounter with Phil Merrill — publisher, businessman, diplomat and patron of Maryland's College of Journalism — who died in June.