Syracuse University Magazine

Richard M. Merkin '60


Richard M. Merkin ’60, the celebrated painter, illustrator, and writer who was also recognized for a flamboyant sartorial sensibility, died September 5, 2009, at his home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. A graduate of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, he earned master’s degrees from Michigan State University and the Rhode Island School of Design, where he joined the faculty and taught for 42 years. Comedian Martin Mull and two members of Talking Heads took courses with him. A representational painter with modernist insistences rooted in the 1920s and ’30s, Merkin used bright colors to create cartoon-like portraits and narratives, often concerning movie stars, musicians, and sports heroes. His illustrations appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s, and he exhibited at the Smithsonian, the Whitney, and the Museum of Modern Art. A self-conscious “dandy,” the mustachioed Brooklyn-born Merkin often appeared at public gatherings in a double-breasted suit and bowler hat, walking stick in hand. He wrote the column “Merkin on Style” for Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine, and achieved a place in the pop culture pantheon when his image was included on the cover of The Beatles’ 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (top row, right of Fred Astaire). “Inventing yourself is a very American thing to do,” he said.

William Safire '51, H'78


William Safire ’51, H’78, whose columns on politics and language usage appeared in The New York Times for more than three decades, died on September 27, 2009, in a Maryland hospice. A New York City native, Safire came to Syracuse University on scholarship and wrote for The Daily Orange and student literary publications. Although an opportunity to work as a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune preempted his graduation, Safire was an energetic supporter of the University, serving on the Board of Trustees; the College of Arts and Sciences Board of Visitors; and the Washington, D.C., Advisory Board. A member of Library Associates, he directed much of his generosity to the SU Library, donating thousands of books and personal papers, including Watergate-era documents from his years as a speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon. As chair of the Dana Foundation, he secured funds for the design and development of the Safire Seminar Room in Bird Library. He delivered two Commencement addresses, facilitated a symposium panel discussion on genocide as part of Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s inauguration activities, and moderated the “Speaking of Science” series, co-sponsored by the foundation and the College of Arts and Sciences. “Whatever Syracuse asks me to do, I do with great passion and pride,” he said. The University presented Safire with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree in 1978 and an Arents Award in 1997. An endowed chair in modern letters in the College of Arts and Sciences was established in his name by a group of alumni, friends, and other supporters in 1988. 

A lifelong Republican who described his political philosophy as “libertarian conservative,” Safire was active in the election campaigns of President Dwight D. Eisenhower during the ’50s and worked as a newspaper, radio, and television reporter. A job as a publicist for a home-building company brought Safire to a Moscow trade fair in 1959, where he engineered the famous “kitchen debate” between then vice president Nixon and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Safire’s photograph of the two leaders arguing the comparative merits of capitalism and communism amid the gleaming domestic appliances became a Cold War icon. The event secured Safire’s relationship with Nixon, who brought him to the White House staff in 1968.

Joining The New York Times in 1973, Safire distinguished himself as a conservative virtuoso in a chorus of liberal voices. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary in 1978 for an exposé of bank mismanagement by Bert Lance, who was forced to resign from the Carter administration. A pundit who gladly accepted that term, Safire frequently appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press. His Sunday New York Times Magazine column, “On Language,” spotlighting the tortures of American English in public rhetoric, won him admirers among ideological opponents and expanded the circle of his readers far beyond compulsive politicos. Safire was the author of a dozen nonfiction books, novels, and collections. Before the Fall (1975) is considered as a particulary valuable inside picture of the Nixon White House during the unfolding of the Watergate scandal. In 2006, President George W. Bush honored Safire with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling him “a voice of independence and principle...often skeptical about our government but never cynical about our country.”