On June 10, businessman and philanthropist Philip Merrill boarded his sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay and set off.
That evening, the boat was discovered miles from home, adrift and abandoned. A search-and-rescue effort scoured the bay and turned up nothing. More than a week passed. Finally, Merrill’s body was recovered from the water. It now appears that he committed suicide, possibly because a heart condition had left him depressed, at the age of 72.
Merrill’s family issued a statement: “We ask everyone to remember him as we will—for the first amazing 71 years of his life.”
Philip Merrill was born in Baltimore in 1934, and he grew up in Manhattan and Connecticut. Merrill was in fact his middle name. A father with a mind for public relations urged his son not to use his real surname—Levine—because he worried that it might become a professional hindrance.
The boy took this advice, though it’s hard to imagine anything hindering this colorful and iron-willed man. “If you walked into a room of 200 people and saw Phil Merrill, you wanted to talk to Phil,” said Vice President Dick Cheney at his friend’s funeral.
Merrill’s rise from humble origins to become an advisor to the high-and-mighty—as well as a generous and innovative philanthropist—is a great American story.
As a young man, Merrill attended Cornell, served in the Army, and worked in journalism. In 1961, he took a job with the Department of State. This kindled a lifelong interest in foreign affairs, but it also helped Merrill realize that he wanted to be his own boss. He quit the government and scraped together the funds to buy The Capital, a struggling newspaper in Annapolis, Md. He revived it and went on to become a mini-mogul in the local media. He owned several small newspapers in the Washington, DC area as well as the Washingtonian, a monthly magazine.
If he didn’t become a Rupert Murdoch, it may have been because he didn’t aspire to become one: “It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a little fish in a big pond,” he once noted. “You’ll get invited into the big pond anyway.”
Sure enough, the big pond called, and Merrill accepted several posts in Republican administrations, including undersecretary of defense for policy (under Reagan) and assistant secretary-general of NATO for defense support (under the first Bush).
Yet this diplomat was at times the most undiplomatic of men, as Merrill earned a reputation for a volcanic temper. “The phone sometimes had to be held at arm’s length, in order to protect the eardrums,” says William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Merrill mixed hot-headedness with an irresistible charisma. The people he hollered at the most—those given “the full Phil” treatment, as one occasional target put it—were also some of those who loved him the best. They knew that behind the irritability lay a kind and patriotic man who was devoted to his wife and kids, read books voraciously, and enjoyed few things more than a good joke at his own expense.
And the big pond kept on calling: under President George W. Bush, Merrill was president and chairman of the Export-Import Bank between December 2002 and July 2005. The necessity of balancing a life in the private and public sectors became the subject of another quip: “One hand for the ship, one hand for yourself.”
Government service wasn’t the only way Merrill gave a hand to the ship: he was also a philanthropist. At the time of his death, The Capital reported that he had donated more than $30 million to various causes, from the arts to national security.
One of his favorite recipients was the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which received a grant of $7.5 million in 2000: the conservation group’s headquarters building now bears Merrill’s name. The bulk of Merrill’s donations were earmarked for higher education.
If one principle united these diverse interests, it was the notion that philanthropic dollars are best spent on today’s problems rather than hoarded for the future. “He was a self-made man who thought every generation should struggle to meet its own needs,” says Eliot Cohen of the School of Advanced and International Studies (SAIS), which is a part of Johns Hopkins University.
Merrill’s largest single gift went to the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism: $10 million, awarded in 2001 and required to be spent over the course of 15 to 18 years. “Phil did not want to wait to see his gift pay real dividends,” says Thomas Kunkel, dean of the college. “He wanted us to use the gift quickly for impact now, not later.” One immediate impact was to have the school renamed in Merrill’s honor; more substantively, the gift underwrote fellowships for students, chairs for professors, and general programming.
The University of Maryland is also home to the Philip Merrill Presidential Scholars program, which not only honors 25 successful seniors but the college and K-12 teachers who meant the most to them as well. It’s the twin of a Merrill Presidential Scholars program at Cornell, which honors 36 students, plus their mentors, each year.
“Most college award ceremonies are ritual affairs that don’t seem to mean much to anyone, other than the immediate parents,” says Jeremy Rabkin, a professor of government at Cornell. “But in this case, the high-school teachers really seem to be thrilled at the recognition. I don’t know if there’s anything else like it in higher education.”
Merrill did more than merely send cash to his alma mater and the local public university. He wanted to improve the quality of higher education everywhere—and to do this, he believed it was important to improve the quality of philanthropy itself.
“The donor who just gives money and walks away is unlikely to achieve the best results,” said Merrill. “When I fund scholarships in a particular program, for example, I make sure to visit the campus at least once a year. I meet with students and faculty. That way I can gauge the success of the gift, and make changes if they are needed.”
For many years, Merrill had supported the teaching of Western civilization at Cornell—indeed, one of the purposes of the foundation, according to its own mission statement, is to promote traditional teaching in this area. Yet Merrill encountered difficulties.
“We had some problems with the Western civilization program up there—they essentially stopped teaching Western civ,” he said at The Philanthropy Roundtable’s 2002 Annual Meeting. “They turned it over to the gender lady.” What he meant was that Cornell had behaved in the manner of so many other colleges and universities: if it didn’t walk away from the Western canon completely, it chose to approach the best that has been thought and said through a modern-day ideological prism.
In 1995, Merrill became a founding member of the advisory committee of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), which promotes academic freedom and high standards on campus.
Three years later, Merrill helped finance the publication of a short book published by ACTA: The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving. It’s a primer for philanthropists who want to accomplish more than making themselves feel good for having written checks to “Alma Mater U.”—it encourages donors to view their gifts as investments, and to choose these investments with the care they would use in picking stocks for their own financial portfolios. “That book still flies off the shelf,” says Anne Neal, ACTA’s president.
Merrill’s most creative gift combined two of his interests: higher education and national security. “Philanthropically there has been inadequate support for security studies,” said Merrill several years ago. “I have tried to do it, but there are only a few foundations interested in this.”
For quite a while, Merrill supported graduate fellowships at Hopkins’ SAIS, a training ground for diplomats and strategists. “His only guidance was to pick people based on merit—to find people whom I thought would go off and do great things,” says Eliot Cohen. “There were no restrictions, except that he wanted to take them out to lunch once a year.” This was of course Merrill’s way of assessing the performance of his SAIS investment.
He was so satisfied that he eventually began discussing a larger gift with the school. “He was clear about the fact that he didn’t want it to be an endowment,” says Cohen. “He knew how the Ford Foundation had run away from the mission of its founder, and he didn’t want that to happen to him.”
In 2003, Merrill pledged $4 million, to be spent over the course of a decade. The gift created the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, with Cohen as its director. “In so many trouble spots around the world, we’re not at war, but we certainly aren’t at peace,” said Merrill at the time of the grant. “Understanding how political and military affairs intersect is essential in dealing with today’s ambiguous, shifting situations.”
SAIS enjoyed an excellent reputation before Merrill created the center. By providing additional support, Merrill was simply following one of the key pieces of advice from The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving: “Identify the best programs or activities and direct your funds to those.”
In doing so, Merrill was able to help a great school improve. “SAIS is one of the most important centers for strategic studies and military history in the country,” says Mary Habeck, who recently left Yale and joined the SAIS faculty. “Phil Merrill is a big part of the reason why.”
Cohen was one of Merrill’s favorite persons—and so he occasionally encountered “the full Phil.” One night, after a reception in Washington, Cohen was driving Merrill back to Merrill’s apartment at the Watergate complex. “I forget exactly what was going on in the world, but I thought politically things were looking awful and so I indulged in a little bit of gloom,” recalls Cohen. “Phil turned to me, pointed his finger, and said ‘Don’t you ever sell the United States short. It’s the greatest country in the world.’ He went on like this for a few minutes. It was a wonderful homily. I wish I could have taped it.”
It’s a memory from the first amazing 71 years of Merrill’s life—and an anecdote about one of the most unforgettable men in the world’s greatest country, made a little better because he lived in it.
Contributing editor John J. Miller writes for National Review and is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.