Remembering Merrill Samuelson: Quiet pioneer of the Mass Communication program

By Kirsten Johnson –

Those who knew Merrill Samuelson, Director of the former School of Communications from 1963-1968 , recall him as someone unlikely to draw attention, or start conflict. They remember their colleague as a thoughtful, hardworking individual with a quiet influence in shaping the department during his time as director.

On Oct. 4, Samuelson passed away at age 94.

Merrill Samuelson“I certainly missed him as a friend and a colleague,” former colleague Keith Stamm said. “He was just a marvelously warm and cooperative person. So helpful and easy to work with.”

Samuelson came from a newspaper family. Born in Nebraska, he attended college in Iowa with intent to pursue a career in journalism. As a young adult, he worked with his father who operated a newspaper in Goldfield, Iowa.

Just before the U.S. entered World War II, he took a break from journalism to serve in the Army where he advanced quickly in the ranks and met his future wife. In 1945, when he was discharged as a captain, he continued his pursuit of a journalism career and worked part-time at various newspapers.

Eventually, he decided to explore a different facet of the communication field and he enrolled at Stanford University to study Mass Communication. While he was working toward his Ph.D. at Stanford, Bill Ames, a professor in the UW School of Communication, was searching for a new department head and was pointed to Samuelson as a potential candidate.

Dick Carter, a former colleague, said Ames was looking for a trailblazer to revamp certain aspects of UW’s lagging program. Samuelson, with his newspaper background and knowledge of Mass Communication from Stanford University, seemed like just the right person.

“Merrill would understand pioneering, about the discomforts and challenges to be faced in a journalistic world characterized as ‘the green eye shades versus the Chi squares,’” he said. “He had, he could, bridge that gap.”

In 1963, Samuelson became director and set a goal for UW’s Communication program to eventually hold a nationally recognized graduate program producing strong Ph.D. candidates, while at the same time maintaining a well-regarded undergraduate program. Before he took over, the program was largely journalism focused, and the editorial journalism course sequence dominated the school. Stamm recalls little emphasis on graduate programs or higher education during that time.

“I would say Merrill was the spearhead of that change,” Stamm said.

Samuelson faced opposition from old journalism professionals teaching in the school who were unhappy with proposed changes. Yet his quiet impact and strong demeanor helped to mold things without causing permanent rifts.

Stamm said much of Samuelson’s vision for the school was directly influenced by Stanford’s Mass Communication program. To this day, the program mimics many aspects of Stanford’s. In addition to creating graduate programs, Samuelson helped develop entry-level Mass Communication courses, which helped to broaden the undergraduate program.

“Students were expected to know something about Mass Communication and not just how to write a news story,” Stamm said. “So it really broadened the undergraduate program as well.”

Former colleague Don Pember remembers him as a solitary individual who rarely – if ever – complained, had a joy for tending his home vegetable garden, and who did his job well.

“He was always easy to work with,” Pember said. “He never complained, he did a good job, he was just the sort of guy who kept the show running.”

Stamm recalls many times the two would walk together to Ivar’s for lunch and chat.

“I can still see the way his smile would beam when he was coming down the hall to see you,” Stamm said. “He was happy to see you, whether there was any reason to be or not. You couldn’t have asked for a better colleague.”

Samuelson’s influence likely extends farther than many even realize.

“He influenced the department in a very quiet and humble way,” Stamm said. “He didn’t promote himself. He was really the kind of person who did more for other people and inspired the rest of us to be that way. With some of the conflict and so forth, the battles during that time, he was a voice that was very badly needed at times to calm people down.”

Thank you for all that you did, Merrill!