Leaders & Legacies: Brooks McCormick, business leader, conservationist, philanthropist

  • Brooks McCormick takes one of his great-grandchildren on a golf cart ride at St. James Farm in Warrenville. In 2000, he sold the 607-acre farm to the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, though he retained the right to live on the property until his death in 2006.

    Brooks McCormick takes one of his great-grandchildren on a golf cart ride at St. James Farm in Warrenville. In 2000, he sold the 607-acre farm to the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, though he retained the right to live on the property until his death in 2006. Courtesy of Conor McCormick O'Neil

  • DuPage Foundation's Leaders & Legacy series

    DuPage Foundation's Leaders & Legacy series

 
 
Updated 5/7/2021 11:35 AM

Editor's note: DuPage Foundation is partnering with the Daily Herald to bring you a new series celebrating the powerful role philanthropy plays in our community. "Leaders & Legacies: Stories of Local Impact" will be a recurring feature highlighting the inspiring stories of local individuals, families and businesses that have made or are making a lasting impact through their generosity and leadership.

The series begins with the late philanthropist Brooks McCormick.

 

Among the many gifts that can be attributed to Brooks McCormick, his ability to bring people together for the good of all is what people remember most about him.

He was a visionary with the means to get things done. His life epitomized the saying, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Brooks was the great-grandnephew of Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the McCormick Reaper, a revolutionary farm implement that began a trend toward using automation to improve agricultural productivity. That original enterprise evolved into the world-renowned company International Harvester, known today as Navistar International.

Brooks was the last member of his family to work for International Harvester, serving 40 years in a vast range of positions including responsibilities that afforded his family the opportunity to live in England. While there, Brooks likely acquired his formal manner and impeccable taste in clothing.

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Brooks McCormick (1917-2006)
Brooks McCormick (1917-2006)

Following Brooks' career at International Harvester, philanthropy became his focus and the family business.

His wife, Hope Baldwin McCormick, was equally committed to philanthropy and was actively involved in politics having served in the Illinois House of Representatives.

The youngest McCormick grandson, Conor McCormick O'Neil, said his grandparents instilled an understanding among family members that "to whom much is given, much is expected."

Conor and his close relatives along with trusted advisers now meet several times a year to oversee distributions from the family's charitable foundation to causes that support their love of nature, animal welfare, cultural amenities, and humanitarian needs.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

This is a natural continuation of the McCormick family's determination to be of service to others. DuPage County has been a fortunate recipient of this generosity.

Thanks to the efforts of Brooks McCormick, his family home and the nearly 600 acres of surrounding property in Warrenville became a part of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County upon his passing in 2006.

Many pieces commissioned by the McCormick family remain at St. James Farm Forest Preserve, including the life-size bronze sculpture of Chamossaire, the 1945 St. Leger Stakes champion.
Many pieces commissioned by the McCormick family remain at St. James Farm Forest Preserve, including the life-size bronze sculpture of Chamossaire, the 1945 St. Leger Stakes champion. - Courtesy of DuPage Foundation

The estate had belonged to Brooks' parents, who called the property St. James Farm, a name that was inspired by the address of their residence on "Rue St. Jacques" in Paris.

During Brooks' lifetime, many equestrian events were held at St. James Farm, which he had turned into a mecca for horse enthusiasts.

A 62-stall stable for competitors' horses was built on the property along with an indoor riding arena, a dressage and jumping arena, and a 1.5-mile steeplechase track. The equestrian events that were hosted by the family drew more than 10,000 spectators each year and included an annual steeplechase to benefit Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton.

Another example of the family's charitable endeavors was the establishment of the St. James Riding School for the Handicapped, which touched the lives of thousands of children. A love of art was also apparent to visitors at St. James Farm. Several sculptures commissioned by the McCormick family remain on the grounds. His personal residence was razed per Brooks' wishes.

Brooks McCormick's love of nature was also the catalyst for the creation of The Conservation Foundation in 1972.

Originally known as the Forest Foundation, The Conservation Foundation is a nonprofit focused on improving the health of our communities by preserving and restoring open space and natural lands, protecting rivers and watersheds, and promoting stewardship of the environment in northeastern Illinois.

The Conservation Foundation is headquartered at McDonald Farm in Naperville. The 49-acre site, donated by Lenore McDonald in 1992 and now surrounded by subdivisions, is also a working organic vegetable farm.
The Conservation Foundation is headquartered at McDonald Farm in Naperville. The 49-acre site, donated by Lenore McDonald in 1992 and now surrounded by subdivisions, is also a working organic vegetable farm. - Courtesy of The Conservation Foundation

Brooks, along with other leading conservationists, was responsible for the preservation of more than 35,000 acres of open space throughout this region.

His commitment to preservation led D. "Dewey" Pierotti Jr., former president of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, to refer to Brooks as "The Teddy Roosevelt of DuPage County."

Conor McCormick O'Neil recalls his grandfather's love of nature and wildlife and that he couldn't bear to see animals mistreated.

A deep concern for the welfare of others was a recurring theme throughout Brooks' life.

Having served as chair of the Executive Committee for The Chicago Community Trust, he felt that DuPage County needed a similar permanent charitable institution focused on raising the quality of life for area residents.

It was this belief that inspired him to co-found The DuPage Community Foundation (now DuPage Foundation) with former DuPage County Board member Mary Eleanor Wall.

Although Brooks and Mary Eleanor favored different political parties, they came together through their shared love of DuPage County.

They were joined by Jerry Bradshaw, a prominent banker in Wheaton, and the three visionaries encouraged a group of similarly inclined individuals to partner with them in bringing DuPage Foundation to fruition.

Last summer, a group of Conservation Foundation board trustees join in a socially distanced hike around Dayton Bluffs, a 253-acre natural area preserve along the Fox River. The preserve was created in 2013 through a partnership with the foundation and the city of Ottawa.
Last summer, a group of Conservation Foundation board trustees join in a socially distanced hike around Dayton Bluffs, a 253-acre natural area preserve along the Fox River. The preserve was created in 2013 through a partnership with the foundation and the city of Ottawa. - Courtesy of The Conservation Foundation

Since its inception in 1986, DuPage Foundation has grown into one of the Chicago area's 25 largest charitable foundations and has granted more than $55 million on behalf of its constituents to nonprofits throughout DuPage County and beyond.

Conor McCormick O'Neil recalls his grandfather shunning the spotlight and giving credit to others who came before him.

But it is only fitting that we acknowledge the remarkable legacy of Brooks McCormick. The enduring impact of his philanthropy and the continued generosity of his family extends well beyond DuPage County and has included meaningful support for the Art Institute of Chicago, Northwestern University, Rush University Medical Center, and the University of Chicago, among other organizations.

• The Leaders & Legacies series is brought to you by the Legacy Society of DuPage Foundation. Suggestions for future stories can be sent to Alice Wood, director of gift planning, at alice@dupagefoundation.org. Interested in learning more about how you can make an impact or create a legacy for your community and favorite causes? Visit www.dupagefoundation.org or call (630) 665-5556.

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