Leaders & Legacies: Col. Robert R. McCormick, legendary publisher, war hero and philanthropist

Leaders & Legacies: Stories of Local Impact is an ongoing series brought to you in partnership with the Daily Herald and DuPage Foundation. It highlights the inspiring stories of local individuals, families, and businesses that have made or are making a lasting impact for our community through their generosity and leadership.

The series continues with Colonel Robert R. McCormick (1880-1955).

Whether you have heard of Colonel Robert R. McCormick or not, you have probably been graced by his legacy as a Chicagoan.

Several iconic Chicagoland institutions, including McCormick Place and Cantigny Park, were either gifted or inspired by the Colonel, who had a deep love for Chicago and its people.

It's what motivated him to honor his family's success and contributions to Chicago and beyond by giving locally throughout his life - and after.

Robert Rutherford McCormick was born in 1880 in Chicago into one of the wealthiest families in America.

Known as the "Reaper Kings" by local media in the late 19th century, the McCormick family famously invented the McCormick Reaper, a machine that would revolutionize grain harvesting for farmers.

Having spent most of his childhood growing up in London, McCormick returned to the States for college and graduated from Yale in 1903.

While attending law school at Northwestern University, he became a Chicago alderman, served two years on the Chicago City Council, and was elected president of the board of trustees of the Chicago Sanitary District. McCormick was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1907 and, in 1909, co-founded the law firm that became Kirkland & Ellis.

The youngest grandson of Chicago Tribune pioneer Joseph Medill, McCormick took control of the iconic newspaper in 1911 as president of the Tribune Company.

In 1914, he became editor and publisher of the Tribune with his cousin, Joseph Medill Patterson, who later founded New York Daily News.

Colonel Robert R. McCormick: a war hero, a media mogul and a philanthropist. Courtesy of Cantigny Park

As World War I unfolded, McCormick went to Europe as a war correspondent for the Tribune in early 1915.

A few months later, he returned to the States and joined the Illinois National Guard. After the U.S. entered the war, the entire Illinois National Guard was called on to serve in Europe, and McCormick officially joined the First Division of the U.S. Army in 1917.

Sent to France as an intelligence officer, he was promoted to a full colonel in the field artillery in 1918.

He was later honored with the Distinguished Service Medal for his valor in the Battle of Cantigny.

Colonel McCormick in front of Tribune Tower, dedicated in 1920. Courtesy of Cantigny Park

During the war, McCormick ensured Tribune employees would be taken care of if they were called to serve. He would send the difference of their military pay to their families so they didn't have to take a financial hit.

McCormick also guaranteed job security for those who served. While the men were called to war, women filled many of their jobs at the Tribune, which nearly doubled the staff.

After returning home from serving in the war, McCormick and Patterson wanted to honor their grandfather's aspirations by establishing a journalism school in the Midwest, and chose to pursue McCormick's alma mater: Northwestern University.

The university endorsed the project and the Tribune agreed to give $12,500 per year for five years to help fund the school. The Medill School of Journalism was dedicated on campus in 1921 and is known today as one of the top journalism schools in the U.S.

The Tribune continued its contributions to the school and, by 1947, McCormick had personally donated more than $4 million to the university.

McCormick became sole editor and publisher of the Tribune and further developed the media mecca with the purchase of a radio station in 1924, renaming it WGN, after the paper's slogan as the "World's Greatest Newspaper." In 1948, the company launched WGN-TV, the second commercial television station in the state.

Colonel McCormick's first wife, Amy, left, was an accomplished artist and had served as a nurse during the war. As an animal lover, she supported local animal welfare organizations, including Orphans of the Storm in Deerfield. Courtesy of Cantigny Park

McCormick and his first wife, Amy, had moved into Medill's estate in Wheaton, which was originally named Red Oaks. To pay homage to his time in the military, McCormick renamed the 500-acre property Cantigny, and added two new wings to the 35-room mansion his grandfather had built on the grounds in 1896.

Amy passed away in 1939 and, while McCormick later married Maryland Mathison Hooper in 1944, he never had children of his own. When he passed away in 1955 at age 74, his estate was worth $100 million.

Colonel McCormick often hosted his fellow veterans at Cantigny. Courtesy of Cantigny Park

McCormick wanted his legacy to extend in perpetuity to procure something special for Chicagoans.

Through his will, he established the Robert R. McCormick Charitable Trust that created the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and designated his beloved Cantigny property as a public park.

The historic Robert R. McCormick House at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Courtesy of Cantigny Park

Over the past 65 years, the McCormick Foundation has granted more than $1.8 billion to support education, journalism, economic opportunity initiatives, public safety efforts, veterans' programs, health and wellness campaigns, and more.

These areas of focus pay homage to McCormick's will that outlined his wishes for his estate. McCormick Foundation Director of Strategy, Planning and Operations Andrés Torres said the foundation still looks at McCormick's will on a regular basis.

"We want to ensure that we are interpreting his language and honoring his intent as a donor," Torres said.

After attending the 1933 World's Fair, McCormick saw the need for a large convention center in Chicago and began lobbying for the project. Though it was started after his death, the center was named in his honor and, in 1960, McCormick Place opened as the largest convention center in North America, hosting large-scale trade shows and events. Daily Herald file photo

Through the work of the foundation, the same ideals and principles of McCormick's will are thriving.

Since its inception, the foundation has granted more than $80 million to Northwestern University. Several of the university's buildings have been named after McCormick, including the law school building that was renamed McCormick Hall.

In 1989, the Technological Institute building at Northwestern University was named the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. The foundation has expanded its community partnerships to identify more opportunities to invest in communities to drive long-term change.

Since 2017, the foundation has granted more than $200 million to nonprofit organizations working to build thriving communities in the Chicago area and across Illinois, with an emphasis on Chicago's South and West sides.

Torres said, to honor McCormick's strong belief in freedom of the press and the First Amendment, the foundation has broadened its scope in that area of grantmaking to provide support for nonprofit media companies.

Owned and operated by the McCormick Foundation, Cantigny Park opened to the public in 1958 and is a revered landmark in DuPage County.

Cantigny welcomes more than 300,000 visitors each year to its exquisite landscape filled with walking trails, lush gardens, an education center and a golf course.

The historic home on the grounds was dubbed the Robert R. McCormick House and became a museum for visitors to get a glimpse into the life of the Colonel.

"When McCormick passed away, he started a domino effect from his will of what would happen here," said Jeff Anderson, exhibit coordinator and assistant curator at Cantigny. "He created the McCormick Foundation with his fortune and gave the foundation this property. He had many properties, but Cantigny was his favorite."

An M1 Abrams tank is displayed in front of the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park. Courtesy of Cantigny Park

The First Division Museum, founded in 1960, pays tribute to the men and women of the First Division and features artifacts and exhibits from several wars. Outside of the museum is Tank Park, a collection of tanks and armored vehicles from past wars and present day artillery.

Anderson, who served as interpretation manager at the Robert R. McCormick House for 15 years and is an expert on McCormick and Medill, said McCormick gifted Cantigny because he wanted to leave a place of recreation for the people of Illinois to enjoy forever.

"My dad brought me here as a Cub Scout so we could learn about military history," Anderson said. "Now I get to bring my own kids here."

Just like anything historic, several areas of Cantigny needed repairing.

The new Idea Garden reopened at Cantigny after undergoing renovations as part of Project New Leaf. Courtesy of Ron Szymczak for Cantigny Park

Launched in 2016, Project New Leaf, funded by a grant from the McCormick Foundation, is a multi-year revitalization project to make Cantigny accessible and preserve it for future generations. The first and second phases of the project are complete, and the third and final phase of Project New Leaf, a comprehensive renovation of the McCormick House, is slated for completion this fall.

The improvements are vast, and include a renovated and remodeled First Division Museum and adjoining Tank Park, bench seating throughout the park, lighted walkways, 350 new parking spaces, a new Idea Garden, and much more.

Last year, construction crews replaced damaged bricks on the north side of McCormick House. Courtesy of Cantigny Park

Anderson said the goal was to make Cantigny last another 50 years, and be accessible for everyone who wants to experience its grandeur. "Cantigny isn't just a place you visit," Anderson said. "It's a place you come back to."

And that's exactly what McCormick wanted.

Colonel McCormick is buried on the grounds of Cantigny with full military honors. Courtesy of Cantigny Park

• The Leaders & Legacies series is brought to you by the Legacy Society of DuPage Foundation. Suggestions for future stories can be sent to Mindy Saban, director of communications, at Interested in learning more about how you can make an impact or create a legacy for your community and favorite causes? Visit or call (630) 665-5556. DuPage Foundation is located at 3000 Woodcreek Drive, Suite 310, in Downers Grove, IL 60515.

A Family Tradition

Generational philanthropy was woven into the McCormick family.

After McCormick’s great uncle, Cyrus, established the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, it eventually became part of the International Harvester Company.

McCormick’s younger cousin, Brooks, ran International Harvester in the 1970s and bequeathed St. James Farm to the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County upon his passing in 2006.

Brooks also served as chairman of the executive committee for The Chicago Community Trust, which led him to co-found DuPage Foundation in 1986.

Brooks McCormick, who was featured in the first “Leaders & Legacies” in

May 2021, followed in his older cousin’s footsteps and gifted his St. James Farm estate to the public.

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