NU Declassified: Robert McCormick: NOT an engineer

Robert McCormick’s name can be found all over Northwestern’s campus and Evanston. From buildings, to street signs, to entire undergraduate colleges, it can be found everywhere. This episode of NU Declassified: Names You Need to Know covers Robert McCormick and his history with Northwestern.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: Who do you think Robert McCormick was?

GUESSER: Probably a member of a very rich family. Maybe he started the McCormick Spice Company.
GUESSER: An old man.
GUESSER: I don’t know.
GUESSER: Probably a very rich engineer.
GUESSER: He wasn’t a f–king engineer.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Samantha Anderer.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: And I’m Audrey Hettleman. This is NU Declassified: Names You Need to Know, where we get the deets on names you’ve seen around campus, but probably haven’t thought about.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: For this episode, we’re looking into one of the biggest names on campus: McCormick. While this name is most commonly associated with the engineering school, it’s also tied to Medill’s McCormick Foundation Center, McCormick Boulevard and many more places in and around the Chicago area. But who was Robert McCormick?

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: In order to find out, we talked with Medill professor and former Vice President for University Relations Alan Cubbage.

ALAN CUBBAGE: Robert McCormick is generally known as The Colonel. He’s a very colorful character and very influential in American journalism. He was a colonel in the army in World War I and retained that title for years and years. It’s not like there aren’t lots of colonels in the army, but as far as Robert R. McCormick was concerned, he was THE Colonel.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: Remember Joseph Medill from our last podcast? The infamous editor, publisher and partial owner of the Chicago Tribune was McCormick’s grandfather. After the war, McCormick joined the family business and began working for the Chicago Tribune. He became joint editor-in-chief and publisher with his cousin in 1914, but by 1925 he had worked his way up to sole editor and publisher.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: To get another perspective on McCormick, we spoke with retired chairman and CEO of the Tribune Company John Madigan. Madigan also served as a director and former chairman of the Robert R. McCormick foundation, so he’s very familiar with the McCormick name.

JOHN MADIGAN: He came into the newspaper and became the legendary publisher for many years and built up the company, and he was very much opposed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, even though they went to Groton together, to boarding school. They were apparently friends there, but as Roosevelt developed his liberal policies, McCormick became very much opposed. In his later years he became more and more of an isolationist, and the paper started to become not as relevant as it should have been.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: Much like his grandfather, McCormick’s conservative leanings led him to public office. He served as a Chicago alderman for two years, from 1904 to 1906. His politics also found their way into his work as a journalist.

ALAN CUBBAGE: He was violently anti-communist after World War II in the 1950s. Like I say, he and Franklin D. Roosevelt really tangled. I mean, they just, you know, did not get along. The Tribune actually leaked a secret about the fact that the US Navy had broken the codes that the Japanese Navy was using. And that story ended up in the Chicago Tribune, and the government was getting prepared to prosecute the Tribune for treason or something like that. So it was really, you know, like I said, a very acrimonious relationship between Colonel McCormick and FDR.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: When he wasn’t writing or devoting his time to his aldermanic duties, McCormick liked to mess around with technology.

JOHN MADIGAN: He was a great technologist, he was into color printing before anybody was.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: McCormick’s sense of innovation didn’t stop at color printing. He even tried to simplify the English language.

ALAN CUBBAGE: For years, the Tribune spelled things in a way that would, you know, phonetically made sense or like “through” would be spelled, in the Tribune, for years and years, they would spell “through,” T-H-R-U, you know, “I went thru the woods” or whatever, and “enuf,” you know, things like that. So he was a great believer in getting rid of this cluttered English language and using, you know, simplified language. So it’s sort of an interesting thing. And of course, it never really caught on, but by God, he was going to try and make sure it did, so for years and years, the Tribune used that as their style.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: He was also the leader of the Chicago Sanitary Commission when they crafted the Chicago Drainage Canal that prevented sewage from making its way into Lake Michigan, hence McCormick Boulevard at the border of Evanston and Skokie.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: It seems like most of McCormick’s connections were with the journalism industry. So how did his name come to be associated with the engineering school?

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: In the late ‘80s, the McCormick Foundation donated lots of money to the engineering school, previously known as the Technological Institute. It was their decision to rename the school to honor Colonel McCormick.

JOHN MADIGAN: The chairman of the foundation at the time of the gift had graduated from the engineering school — Stanton Cook — and so that’s probably a big reason why. And The Colonel was very technologically inclined and very interested in printing presses and paper-making newsprint paper.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: Much of Northwestern’s continued connection with the McCormick family is through the McCormick Foundation.

ALAN CUBBAGE: The McCormick Foundation has been a very strong supporter of Northwestern over the years, mainly to the School of Journalism, but as you can see, because of the naming of the School of Engineering, to other places throughout Northwestern as well.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: In addition to its donations to Northwestern, the McCormick Foundation also contributes toward educating and engaging communities, particularly those in the greater Chicago area.

JOHN MADIGAN: In addition, he left a substantial amount of Tribune stock, and that has funded philanthropic endeavors, for, ever since he passed away. The McCormick Foundation is a donor of something in the order of $40-50 million a year to charities.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: This number was $80 million in 2018. When making donations, the foundation tries to keep donor intent in mind by reviewing the instructions left in McCormick’s will. In it, he called for the establishment of a trust for religious, charitable, scientific, literary or educational purposes, and suggested that a portion of the money be used for education on the principle of freedom of the speech and freedom of the press.

JOHN MADIGAN: He did things that are so impressive when I compare it to the things I had to do as CEO of the company. He really charted a new territory like almost no one ever has.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: While McCormick’s staunch conservative views made him a contentious figure, his influential role as a publisher and a defender of first amendment rights can’t be denied.

ALAN CUBBAGE: The Colonel was certainly a controversial person, there’s no doubt about that. But his influence, through his foundation’s gift to Northwestern, continues to be felt today.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Audrey Hettleman.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: And I’m Samantha Anderer. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me and Audrey Hettleman. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Madison Smith, the digital managing editor is Haley Fuller and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey.

Email: [email protected] and [email protected]

Twitter: @AudreyHettleman and @SammyAnderer


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