Robert Rutherford McCormick (July 30, 1880 – April 1, 1955) was an American newspaper baron, owner of the Chicago Tribune, and popularly known as "Colonel McCormick." He was born into the newspaper dynasty of Joseph Medill, and naturally took control, initially with his cousin Joseph Medill Patterson and later as the sole editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune company. Under his leadership the Chicago Tribune achieved the largest circulation among U.S. standard-sized newspapers.
A leading opponent of United States entry into World War II and of the increase in federal power brought about by the New Deal, McCormick continued to champion a right-wing, traditionalist course long after his positions had been eclipsed in the mainstream. His idiosyncratic editorials made him the leading example of conservative journalism of his era. Under his editorship, the paper was strongly isolationist and actively biased in its coverage of political news and social trends, calling itself "The American Paper for Americans." McCormick was highly successful in his day, developing the great newspaper empire begun by his grandfather and greatly affecting public opinion with his editorial power. However, the use of editorial power in this way can easily lead to abuses. The Chicago Tribune under his leadership was hardly a conveyor of the facts, but rather McCormick's view of them. Although he believed his views were best for his country, history showed him to be incorrect on many issues.
Robert McCormick was born in Chicago, Illinois on July 30, 1880, into the distinguished family of Katherine Medill McCormick and Robert Sanderson McCormick. He was the grandson of Chicago Tribune founder and former Chicago mayor Joseph Medill; his great-uncle was the inventor and businessman Cyrus McCormick. His elder brother was slated to take over the family newspaper business but died early.
From 1889 through 1893, he lived a lonely childhood with his parents in London where his father was a staff secretary to Robert Todd Lincoln. McCormick there attended Ludgrove School. On his return to the United States, he was sent to Groton School in New England. In 1899, McCormick went to Yale University, graduating in 1903, after which he received a law degree from Northwestern University.
McCormick 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, where he worked until 1920, representing the Tribune Company, of which he was president.
In 1904, a Republican ward leader persuaded McCormick to run for alderman. McCormick was elected and served 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.
His political career ended when he took control of the Chicago Tribune in 1910. He became editor and publisher with his cousin, Joseph Medill Patterson, in 1914, a position he held jointly until 1926 and by himself afterwards.
In 1915, McCormick married Amy Irwin Adams, who died in 1939, leading to several years of his being a near social recluse. The couple had no children.
McCormick went to Europe as a war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in 1915, early in World War I, interviewing Tsar Nicholas, Prime Minister Asquith, and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. He visited the Eastern and Western Fronts and was under fire on both. On this trip, McCormick began collecting pieces of historically significant buildings which would eventually find their way into the structure of the Tribune Tower.
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 First Cavalry Regiment. Two days earlier, the Illinois National Guard had been called into Federal Service along with those of several other states by President Woodrow Wilson to patrol the Mexican border during General John J. Pershing's Punitive Expedition. McCormick accompanied his regiment.
Soon after the United States entered the war, McCormick became part of the U.S. Army on June 13, 1917. 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 served in the First Battery, Fifth Field Artillery Regiment, with the First Infantry Division. His service ended on December 31, 1918, though he remained a part of the Officer Reserve Corps until 1929. Cited for prompt action in battle, he received the Distinguished Service Medal. Thereafter, he was always referred to as "Colonel McCormick."
McCormick became president of the Chicago Tribune newspaper in 1911 and served as its publisher and editor-in-chief from 1925 to 1955. McCormick was a great leader and organizer. He built a newspaper empire, taking control of three major papers: Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, and Washington Times-Herald. Under his leadership, the Chicago Tribune achieved the largest circulation among U.S. standard-sized newspapers. In 1953, assets of the company in the United States and Canada totaled almost $250 million.
McCormick’s pro-Republican editorials maintained an extreme right-wing position on a variety of different issues. He criticized unions, Democrats, liberal Republicans, socialism, and communism. He also carried on crusades against gangsters and racketeers, prohibition, British imperialism and the League of Nations, the World Court, and the United Nations. Some of McCormick's personal crusades were seen as quixotic, such as his attempts to reform the spelling of the English language.
A conservative Republican, McCormick became an opponent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, which he compared to communism. He was also an America First isolationist who strongly opposed entering World War II to support the British Empire.
McCormick was also very innovative. The Tribune was the first paper to install a continuous line of all the printing press and folding units. It also was the first to print more than one color on its pages. In addition, McCormick was a 25 percent owner of the Tribunes 50,000 watt radio station, which was purchased in 1924; he named it WGN, the initials of the Tribunes "modest" motto, the "World's Greatest Newspaper." Decades after McCormick's death, WGN's television broadcasting operations were one of several national "superstations" that were on cable systems across America.
In addition, the Chicago Tribune was the founder and sponsor of the Chicago College All-Star Game, which pitted the NFL champion against an all-star college team for more than 40 years. McCormick also established the town of Baie-Comeau, in Quebec, Canada, in 1936 and constructed a paper mill there.
In 1944, McCormick remarried to Maryland Mathison Hooper. They had no children.
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 failing health since an attack of pneumonia in April 1953, McCormick remained active in his work until the month before he died. He died on April 1, 1955 in Wheaton, Illinois. He was buried on his farm in his war uniform.
McCormick was a champion of independent journalism. He not only expanded and solidified the great newspaper empire begun by his grandfather Joseph Medill, but helped shape public opinion in his country. One of McCormick’s lasting legacies is the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, which he helped establish in 1921.
The giant convention center McCormick Place on the near South Side of Chicago is named after him. Also, the Engineering School at his alma mater, Northwestern University is named in his honor.
All links retrieved July 28, 2019.
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