'Full circle': McCormick Place turns into field hospital a century after namesake survived flu pandemic

  • Col. Robert R. McCormick

    Col. Robert R. McCormick

  • The former mansion of Col. Robert R. McCormick is now a museum on the grounds of Wheaton's Cantigny Park.

    The former mansion of Col. Robert R. McCormick is now a museum on the grounds of Wheaton's Cantigny Park. Courtesy of Cantigny Park

  • Col. Robert R. McCormick

    Col. Robert R. McCormick

 
 
Updated 4/8/2020 9:17 PM

Col. Robert R. McCormick kept a diary during World War I that sounds eerily familiar.

Fearful his notes could fall into enemy hands, he didn't write much about plans for the Battle of Cantigny, America's first major offensive against German forces. But he does recall feeling sick with a persistent fever on the eve of the assault in France.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The strain of staying in command of my battalion during the fateful days while suffering from influenza very nearly killed me and certainly has affected my vitality," McCormick wrote in a letter after the war.

In a strange coincidence, McCormick Place has turned into a field hospital for coronavirus patients a century after its namesake survived another global contagion: the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed tens of millions around the world and an estimated 675,000 Americans. Historians at Cantigny Park, the colonel's former estate in Wheaton, have revisited the little-known story about the newspaper publisher who left behind a legacy of philanthropy now supporting COVID-19 relief efforts.

"This is kind of fitting how it comes full circle that Robert had to deal with this epidemic just over 100 years ago, and we're dealing with something very similar now," said Jeffrey Anderson, interpretation manager of the McCormick House at Cantigny Park.

The Illinois National Guard members transforming McCormick Place into a makeshift hospital may not realize the Chicago convention center bears the name of a fellow guardsman.

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As an overseas war correspondent, Robert R. McCormick toured the Russian front. During the 1915 trip, he lifted a shell on his shoulders alongside a Russian officer.
As an overseas war correspondent, Robert R. McCormick toured the Russian front. During the 1915 trip, he lifted a shell on his shoulders alongside a Russian officer. - Courtesy of Cantigny Park

McCormick joined the Guard after a stint as a Chicago Tribune war correspondent visiting the British line and Russian front.

He served under Gen. John Pershing when the Guard patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border. At Pershing's request, McCormick was activated to service and trained as an artillery officer with the Army's 1st Infantry Division.

"He was beyond the age of typical service," Anderson said. "He was from a wealthy background that would have excluded him from that service and he had to go through lengths and measures to get into actual service."

McCormick's untested Army division launched the Battle of Cantigny on May 28, 1918. U.S. troops would defy expectations on the world stage, liberating the French village from German occupation. But on May 29, a seriously ill McCormick was evacuated.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I attended the meeting of battalion commanders the day before the assault although I was so weak that I had to be helped to walk," he wrote in the postwar letter.

He spent seven weeks in a Paris hospital recovering from the Spanish flu. He returned home to continue overseeing the Tribune and to lead training at Fort Sheridan.

But by then the influenza pandemic had spread to the Army base near Highwood. McCormick embraced restrictions that have become the new normal in the age of coronavirus.

"Feeling very rotten," Col. Robert R. McCormick writes in his diary on May 13, 1918. McCormick had contracted the Spanish flu.
"Feeling very rotten," Col. Robert R. McCormick writes in his diary on May 13, 1918. McCormick had contracted the Spanish flu. - Courtesy of Cantigny Park

He ordered healthy soldiers to move out of the barracks, march to the training grounds and pitch their tents.

"Robert had his own way of basically separating those who were sick from those that were healthy," Anderson said in a museum video. "So take a tip from Colonel McCormick, and if you're healthy, you need to stay in."

After he died in 1955, McCormick Place took his name to honor his hope for a massive convention center to bring business to Chicago.

"He wouldn't let things be named after him while he was alive ... so that was the first opportunity to name something significant in Chicago after him," Anderson said.

He left the bulk of his fortune to establish the Robert R. McCormick Foundation with instructions to make his estate -- renamed after the French village -- a public park.

The foundation has provided $500,000 for Chicago's COVID-19 relief fund, $250,000 to the Illinois fund and $100,000 to a journalism fund so local media can continue covering the crisis.

The grants are supporting the causes -- civics and education -- that mattered to McCormick, Anderson said.

"These are all things that would have been important to the colonel, and the foundation's definitely fulfilling that part of the mission," he said.

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