Top Brass Recall Merrill's Frankness, 'Can-Do' Spirit

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2006

With wit and fond ribbing and a Dixieland band, Philip Merrill's family and friends yesterday mourned the publisher and public servant, whose apparent suicide on the Chesapeake Bay leaves a void in Washington society.

Vice President Cheney delivered the first in a series of eulogies, drawing laughs from about 1,000 guests in the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium with stories about Merrill's arrival in official Washington in 1961, a State Department diplomat who lacked diplomacy.

Merrill was a bureaucrat "good at his job, who grew restless and decided to set out on his own," Cheney said. "He was blunt. He lived by the rule that you ought to say what you mean and then back it up."

Former CIA directors R. James Woolsey and William H. Webster, former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, World Bank President Paul D. Wolfowitz, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and Reagan administration chief of staff Ken Duberstein were among the guests at the memorial for Merrill, whose publishing holdings include Washingtonian magazine and the Capital daily newspaper.

For 40 years, Merrill punctuated work on his businesses with government service, mostly in the State and Defense departments. A committed Republican, Merrill cultivated friendships with a wide range of Washington figures, many of whom spent time on his sailboat, Merrilly, where he apparently shot himself June 10.

Nine days after Merrill's disappearance, his body was found floating in the bay, tied at the ankles with a small anchor and with an apparent shotgun wound to the head, a source close to the investigation said.

Merrill's family has said that his suicide resulted from a struggle with poor physical and emotional health that followed his heart surgery a year ago.

Police would not comment on the family's statement and are awaiting an autopsy report expected next week that may resolve at least some questions surrounding Merrill's death.

Woolsey was the only one of seven speakers to mention suicide, saying: "I can only understand that [Merrill's] great heart betrayed him. . . . It must be seen as a tragic single event" at the end of an otherwise positive life.

In a magazine story-style eulogy brimming with anecdotes, John A. Limpert, editor of the Washingtonian, recalled running down the street after his frenetic boss in a rush to a downtown meeting that came to resemble a police foot chase. "Trying to keep up with Phil wasn't always easy, but it was always interesting," he said.

University of Maryland President C. D. "Dan" Mote Jr. recalled Merrill's sartorial disregard, saying the man who donated $10 million to the university's College of Journalism "wore the same red-striped tie to every Maryland event for years, stains and all."

"We were a compatible pair," Mote said of Merrill, who joined him on several international sailing trips. "He talked, and I listened."

Merrill's three children offered a picture of a father full of advice and questions, committed to a close family life that included mandatory dinners together and six-week family vacations.

"My father appeared larger than life to a great degree because my mom stood at his side," said Nancy Merrill, referring to her mother Eleanor's status as Merrill's adviser and business partner.

"He hugged us, kissed us and told us he loved us," daughter Cathy Merrill Williams recalled. Nonetheless, "there was some yelling in our house," she said, recalling an argument with her father over the proper way to tie the Merrilly to the dock at the family's home outside Annapolis. Storming from the house, she returned later to find a note that read in part, "I am sorry, you were right and I was wrong. . . . I'm glad you were strong enough to fight back," she recalled.

Merrill's son, Douglas, recalled long conversations with his father on the chairlift during ski trips. "We never felt our parents were more interested in professional pursuits than in raising their family," he said.

After the service, a Dixieland band played while waiters served the publisher's favorite chocolate chip cookies and ice cream. Attendees expressed regret over Merrill's decision to end his celebrated life.

"I was absolutely shattered," Duberstein said.

"Phil was always an eternal optimist, a can-do person."

News that such a man had killed himself, Duberstein said, "didn't compute."

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