Colonel Robert R. McCormick

The Life and Times of Colonel Robert R. McCormick

(Click the audio button at the bottom of the page to hear Colonel Robert R. McCormick’s Battle of Cantigny speech, given over the WGN airwaves as part of the “Chicago Theater of the Air” program.)

Colonel Robert R. McCormick was born on July 30, 1880, in Chicago, Illinois, to Robert Sanderson McCormick and Katherine Medill McCormick. His father had been US ambassador to Austria-Hungary, Russia and France. His mother was the daughter of Joseph Medill, the driving force behind the Chicago Tribune newspaper in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Robert R. McCormick attended school at Ludgrove and Groton. He graduated from Yale in 1903 and studied law at Northwestern University. He then went on to be a founding member of the law firm of Shepard, McCormick and Thomason.

His lifelong participation in civic affairs began when he was elected in 1904 to be Alderman of the old 21st Ward in Chicago. Halfway through his aldermanic term, McCormick was elected President of the Sanitary District Board. The District built and operated the drainage system created to protect Chicago’s drinking water by disposing of the city’s sewage.

During his tenure from 1905 to 1910, Robert McCormick achieved a great deal as President of the Sanitary District. He established laboratories to study bacterial purification of waste. He also completed the great Drainage Canal and created hydroelectric power stations to provide electricity to Chicago.

After the completion of his term in office, Robert McCormick began to take an active leadership role in the Chicago Tribune newspaper and the Tribune Company. In 1909, he became Tribune Treasurer. The following year, he helped prevent the sale of the Tribune to a rival newspaper. By March 1911, he was the President of the Tribune Company. He held this position until his death in 1955.

In 1914, McCormick and his cousin Joe Patterson became joint editors and publishers of the Chicago Tribune. By 1925, Robert McCormick became the sole editor and publisher. It was as editor and publisher of the Tribune that McCormick made an impact in the spheres of business, technology, journalism, press freedom, politics and service to country.

McCormick’s leadership in business and journalism is evidenced by his superb management of the Chicago Tribune, his support for journalistic education and his fight for the freedom of the press. His business acumen transformed the Tribune from a metropolitan newspaper business to a transnational media enterprise. McCormick and his cousin, Joe Patterson, established the New York Daily News in 1919. Seeking self-sufficiency in the supply of newsprint, McCormick created subsidiaries in Canada to control paper production and delivery through Tribune timberlands, paper mills and shipping fleets. He led the Tribune Company to branch out into other media with WGN Radio in 1924 and WGN TV in 1948.

McCormick led the newspaper industry in technical innovation. He created a new system of configuring printing presses to increase flexibility and productivity. In the 1920s, he brought color to newspapers through the development and use of colorotogravure and newspaper color printing. McCormick was the driving force behind the 1925 construction of the world-known Tribune Tower, a skyscraper that combined modern offices and printing plant with historic architectural details. A proponent of aviation in the gathering of news, he used his own airplanes on six major expeditions to South America, Europe, Africa and Asia to report on foreign events. He wrote for the Tribune and spoke on WGN Radio about his meetings with such leaders as Nehru of India, Franco of Spain and the Perons of Argentina.

McCormick was a leader in the field of journalism and press rights. He introduced the concept of higher education in journalism. His goal was to lay the foundation for journalism to become a profession. He was the driving force behind the establishment of the Medill School of Journalism in 1921 at Northwestern University.

Colonel McCormick was an activist in the fight for the freedom of the press. He staked his own and the Tribune’s reputation and finances in legal battles against private and governmental efforts to restrict free speech and press freedoms. The low damages of six cents found against the Tribune in the 1919 “Ford vs Chicago Tribune” trial vindicated the Tribune’s stand to allow the press to make fair comment on public figures. The 1923 decision for the Tribune against Chicago Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson in “City of Chicago vs Chicago Tribune” support the concept that people had the right to free speech without fear of being taken to court for expressing their views. McCormick’s support of other newspaper’s legal struggles for press freedom was successful in Near vs Minnesota. Tribune legal and financial support led the case to make it to the US Supreme Court in 1931. McCormick achieved victory when the Court struck down the Minnesota Press Gag Law as unconstitutional.

McCormick was at the center of many political controversies while editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. He led many press campaigns against political corruption and waste, as well as various government policies. His strong beliefs and views shaped his opposition to Prohibition, the New Deal and interventionism.

McCormick’s strongest efforts were against the policies and actions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. McCormick’s support of limited government clashed with Roosevelt’s New Deal government activism. McCormick threw his full editorial and financial support to the Republican Presidential Candidate of 1936, Govenor Alf Landon of Kansas. The Colonel also engaged in a fierce struggle against the Roosevelt Administration to successfully place a Free Press Protection clause in the NRA newspaper code. McCormick also opposed President Roosevelt indirectly by supporting the America First Committee. His battlefield experience during World War I caused McCormick to oppose the commitment of American lives and treasure in foreign wars.

McCormick strongly supported military service in the defense of one’s country. He exemplified the concept of the citizen-soldier. Before his military career, McCormick studied military history and followed military affairs. As a Chicago Tribune war correspondent, he visited the Eastern Front in 1915. There, he visited various combat units of the tsarist Russian Army and observed several battles between the Russian and German armies. In addition to his news articles, McCormick wrote a book on his experiences titled With the Russian Army.

In 1916, McCormick’s Illinois National Guard unit, the 1st Illinois Cavalry, was called up for service along the Texas-Mexican border in response to the Villa raid on Columbus, New Mexico. McCormick and the 1st Illinois Cavalry established quarters in Brownsville, Texas. There, McCormick purchased several field kitchens and machine guns for the under-equipped regiment.

Upon America’s entry into World War I, McCormick joined Gen. Pershing’s staff in France. He was granted a combat assignment with the 5th Field Artillery of the First Division. As commander of the 1st Battalion of the 5th Field Artillery, he led the unit in providing crucial artillery support to First Division troops in their capture of the German held village of Cantigny. The first American victory of World War I, the Battle of Cantigny, so impressed McCormick that he changed his estate’s name of Red Oaks to Cantigny.

By the end of his military career, McCormick had risen to the rank of Colonel. He received the Distinguished Service Medal for his action in World War I. The citation in part reads “...he displayed rare leadership and organizing ability, unusual executive ability, and sound technical judgment. By his ceaseless energy and his close supervision of training, discipline and command in action against the enemy, he contributed materially to the successful operations of the Artillery of the American Expeditionary Forces.” (G.O. No. 15, W.D., 1923)

Col. McCormick married twice but had no children. He married Amy Adams in 1915 during his European trip as Chicago Tribune war correspondent. She passed away in 1939. Col. McCormick remarried in 1944 to Maryland Hooper, who outlived the Colonel by 31 years. The Colonel passed away on April 1, 1955 at his beloved estate, Cantigny. He is buried at the estate alongside his first wife, Amy. Their tomb is modeled on the exedra, an ancient Greek meeting place to exchange news. Colonel Robert R. McCormick’s legacy lives on through the McCormick Foundation, which supports the ideals of a free democratic society by investing in children, communities and country.

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