About Robert Rutherford "Colonel" McCormick
Robert Rutherford "Colonel" McCormick (1880–1955) was a member of the McCormick family of Chicago who became owner and publisher of the Chicago Tribune newspaper. A leading non-interventionist, an opponent of American entry into World War II and of the increase in Federal power brought about by the New Deal, he continued to champion a traditionalist course long after his positions had been eclipsed in the mainstream.
McCormick was born July 30, 1880 in Chicago to a distinguished family, and known as "Bertie" to his family because he had so many relatives named Robert. His maternal grandfather was Tribune founder and former Chicago mayor Joseph Medill. On his father's side, his great-uncle was inventor and businessman Cyrus McCormick. His elder brother Joseph Medill McCormick (known as Medill McCormick) was slated to take over the family newspaper business but was more interested in running for political office. From 1889 through 1893, he lived a lonely childhood with his parents in London where his father Robert Sanderson McCormick was a staff secretary to Robert Todd Lincoln, and he attended Ludgrove School. On his return to the United States, he was sent to Groton School. In 1899, McCormick went to Yale College, where he was elected to the prestigious secret society Scroll and Key, graduating in 1903. He attended law school at Northwestern University and served as a clerk in a Chicago law firm, being admitted to the bar in 1907. The following year, he co-founded the law firm that became Kirkland & Ellis, which represented the Tribune Company. He was a partner until 1920. In 1910, he took control of the Chicago Tribune, becoming editor and publisher with his cousin, Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, in 1914, a position he held jointly until 1926 and by himself afterwards.
In 1904 a Republican ward leader persuaded him to run for Alderman, and he was elected, serving on the Chicago City Council for two years. In 1905, at the age of 25, he was elected to a five-year term as president of the board of trustees of the Chicago Sanitary District, operating the city's vast drainage and sewage disposal system. In 1907 he was appointed to the Chicago Charter Commission and the Chicago Plan Commission. However, his political career ended abruptly when he took control of the Tribune.
McCormick went to Europe as a war correspondent for the Tribune in February 1915, early in World War I, interviewing Tsar Nicholas, Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. He visited the Eastern and Western Fronts and was under fire on both. His father had been ambassador to Russia, and he used his contacts to attend formal dinners with Grand Duke Nicholas and Grand Duke Peter. On this trip, McCormick collected fragments of the cathedral of Ypres and the city hall of Arras. It is popularly believed that these pieces were the first of the collection of stones that were later embedded in the facade of the Tribune Tower. They are not, however, on display.
Returning to the United States in 1915, he joined the Illinois National Guard on June 21, 1916, and, being an expert horseman, became a major in its 1st Cavalry Regiment. Two days earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had called the Illinois National Guard into Federal Service, along with those of several other states, to patrol the Mexican border during General John J. Pershing's Punitive Expedition. McCormick accompanied his regiment to the Mexican border.
Soon after the United States entered the war, McCormick again became part of the U.S. Army on June 13, 1917, when the entire Illinois National Guard was mobilized for Federal service in Europe. He was sent to France as an intelligence officer on the staff of General Pershing. Seeking more active service, he was assigned to an artillery school. By June 17, 1918, McCormick became a lieutenant colonel, and by September 5, 1918 had become a full colonel in the field artillery, in which capacities he saw action. He took part in the capture of Cantigny, after which he named his farm estate in Wheaton, Illinois, and in the battles of Soissons, Saint-Mihiel, and the second phase of the Argonne. He served in the 1st Battery, 5th Field Artillery Regiment, with the 1st Infantry Division. His service ended on December 31, 1918, though he remained a part of the Officers Reserve Corps from October 8, 1919 to September 30, 1929. Cited for prompt action in battle, he received the Distinguished Service Medal. Thereafter, he was always referred to as "Colonel McCormick."
McCormick returned from the war and took control of the Tribune in the 1920s. Given the lack of schools of journalism in the midwestern United States at the time, McCormick and Patterson sponsored a school named for their grandfather, the Joseph Medill School of Journalism. It was announced by Walter Dill Scott in November 1920, and began classes in 1921.
As publisher of the Tribune, McCormick was involved in a number of legal disputes regarding freedom of the press that were handled by McCormick's longtime lawyer Weymouth Kirkland. The most famous of these cases is Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931), a case championed by McCormick in his role as chairman of the American Newspaper Publishers Association's Committee on Free Speech.
A conservative Republican, McCormick was an opponent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and compared the New Deal to Communism. For a period in 1935, he protested Rhode Island's Democratic judiciary by displaying a 47 star flag outside the Tribune building, with the 13th star (representing Rhode Island) removed; he relented after he was advised that alteration of the American flag was unlawful. He was also an America First isolationist who strongly opposed entering World War II to rescue the British Empire. As a publisher he was very innovative. McCormick was a 25 percent owner of the Tribune's 50,000 watt radio station, which was purchased in 1924; he named it WGN, the initials of the Tribune's modest motto, the "World's Greatest Newspaper".
He also established the town of Baie-Comeau, Quebec in 1936 and constructed a paper mill and a hydroelectric power plant there named McCormick Dam to generate electricity for the mill.
McCormick carried on crusades against gangsters and racketeers, prohibition and prohibitionists, local, state, and national politicians, Wall Street, the East and Easterners, Democrats, the New Deal and the Fair Deal, liberal Republicans, the League of Nations, the World Court, the United Nations, British imperialism, socialism, and communism. Besides Roosevelt, his chief targets included Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson and Illinois Governor Len Small. Some of McCormick's personal crusades were seen as quixotic (such as his attempts to reform spelling of the English language) and were parodied in political cartoons in rival Frank Knox's Chicago Daily News. Knox's political cartoonists, including Cecil Jensen, derided McCormick as "Colonel McCosmic", a "pompous, paunchy, didactic individual with a bristling mustache and superlative ego."
In 1943 he told an audience he helped plan a defence against an invasion from Canada at the end of World War I. In June 1947 he gave a 100 year birthday party for the Tribune that included a fireworks show called "the most colossal show since the Chicago fire." Other publications noted that everything about the celebration was called "the world's greatest". Instead, they said "the Tribune has been made into a worldwide symbol of reaction, isolation, and prejudice by a man capable of real hate."
Starting in the summer of 1904, McCormick spent much time at the homes of his father's first cousin in downtown Chicago and Lake Forest, Illinois. Amanda McCormick (1822–1891), youngest daughter of family patriarch Robert McCormick, had married fellow Virginian Hugh Adams (1820–1880) before moving to Chicago to start the McCormick & Adams grain trading business. Their son Edward Shields Adams, who was born in 1859, had married the much younger Amie de Houle "Amy" Irwin, born in 1872, the daughter of decorated soldier Bernard J. D. Irwin, on April 15, 1895. However, starting in November 1913 a bitter family dispute developed.
Amy filed for divorce, claiming Adams was alcoholic, which was granted on March 6, 1914 without her husband appearing in court. Adams filed a lawsuit against McCormick for trespass and asked for the case to be heard again. By September, Adams filed another lawsuit claiming that McCormick had a former chauffeur arrested and interrogated by a private detective. The opposition press made the most out of the scandals. Adams presented McCormick with a bill for eight years of lodging, and claimed McCormick had "wickedly and maliciously debauched and carnally knew the said Amy Irwin Adams" while his guest. McCormick then claimed he had made loans to Adams, which had to be repaid. The case was heard by Federal Court Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in November. It was hinted that McCormick had promised to forgive the loans if the divorce was not contested. Landis ruled in favor of McCormick in February 1915.
On March 10, 1915, McCormick married Amy Irwin Adams after waiting the year after the divorce as required by law at the time. The wedding was in the registry office of St George's, Hanover Square in London with only two witnesses present. The Tribune did not mention the wedding, nor any of the previous lawsuits. After she died in 1939 he became a near social recluse. On December 21, 1944 he married Mrs. Maryland Mathison Hooper in the apartment of his cousin Chauncey McCormick. She was 47 and he was 64 at the time. She lived until July 21, 1985. He had no children from either marriage.
In failing health since an attack of pneumonia in April 1953, McCormick nevertheless remained active in his work until the month before he died on April 1, 1955. He was buried on his farm in his war uniform.
McCormick was regarded as a "remote, coldly aloof, ruthless aristocrat, living in lonely magnificence, disdaining the common people... an exceptional man, a lone wolf whose strength and courage could be looked up to, but at the same time had to be feared; an eccentric, misanthropic genius whose haughty bearing, cold eye and steely reserve made it impossible to like or trust him." McCormick was described by one opponent as "the greatest mind of the fourteenth century" and by the American labor historian Art Preis as a "fascist-minded multi-millionaire". In his memoirs, publisher Henry Regnery described his meeting with McCormick and William Henry Chamberlin:
The Colonel received us in his rather feudal office, high above Michigan Avenue at the top of his Gothic tower. He was a tall, erect, distinguished-looking man, who, with his white hair, blue eyes, ruddy complexion, white mustache, and in his manner and dress, conveyed the impression that he might have come from the English landed aristocracy. He was perfectly cordial, but gave us clearly to understand that our rather similar views on such matters as foreign policy and the administration in Washington were no basis for familiarity.
The New York Times said:
He did consider himself an aristocrat, and his imposing stature—6 feet 4 inches (193 cm) tall, with a muscular body weighing over 200 pounds (91 kg), his erect soldierly bearing, his reserved manner and his distinguished appearance—made it easy for him to play that role. But if he was one, he was an aristocrat, according to his friends, in the best sense of the word, despising the idle rich and having no use for parasites, dilettantes or mere pleasure-seekers, whose company, clubs and amusements he avoided. With an extraordinary capacity for hard work, he often put in seven long days a week at his job even when elderly, keeping fit through polo and later horseback riding. In his seventies, he could still get into the war uniform of his thirties.
Within days of McCormick's death, Richard J. Daley was elected mayor and a new family would dominate Chicago, this time aligned with the Democratic Party for over half a century. Since McCormick had long advocated building a convention center, after it was built from 1957 to 1960 McCormick Place was named for him.
Upon his death McCormick left an estate estimated at $55 million, and set up a charitable trust in his will. The Northwestern University School of Law building that opened in 1962 was named McCormick Hall after a donation from the foundation. After a donation to renovate the Technological Institute building at Northwestern University in 1989, the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science was named for him. Formerly called the McCormick Tribune Foundation, the trust divested its ownership of the Tribune Company, so in 2008 changed its name to simply the McCormick Foundation. It contributed more than a billion US dollars for journalism, early childhood education, civic health, social and economic services, arts and culture and citizenship.