Meet the Colonel

Robert R. McCormick (1880-1955) led an exciting life. His interests ranged from journalism to fox-hunting to aviation.

Who is Robert R. McCormick?​

Robert R. McCormick believed in public service and was elected Alderman of Chicago’s 21st Ward in 1904 and President of the Chicago Sanitary District in 1905. He became a citizen-soldier, serving in the Illinois National Guard in 1915 and in the First Infantry Division during World War I. Here he achieved the rank of Colonel, an honor he acknowledged the rest of his life.

In 1911 he was elected President of Tribune Company and devoted the next 44 years to publishing and editing the Chicago Tribune. He created an important media empire, Tribune Company which grew from a single newspaper to a media giant because Colonel McCormick created radio ​and television stations and built newsprint factories and printing plants.

He enjoyed the life of a gentleman-farmer, operating the Tribune Experimental Farms in Wheaton and Yorkville, Illinois and influenced the creation of Meigs Field, an airport in Chicago.

He married twice, first to Amy Irwin Adams, who lived at Cantigny until her death in 1939, and later to Maryland Mathison Hooper, with whom he traveled the world.

Upon his death, his will established the Robert R. McCormick Charitable Trust, known today as the McCormick Foundation, which established Cantigny as a public park and created a charitable trust to fund programs to foster communities of educated, informed and engaged citizens.

Military

​Robert McCormick received a special temporary commission as a Colonel in the Illinois National Guard August 23, 1915 allowing him to travel in Russia and report on World War I for the Chicago Tribune. This commission expired when he returned to Chicago but on June 21, 1916, he received a new commission, this time as a Major in the First Calvary. He served with Brigadier General John J. Pershing when the First Cavalry shipped out to Brownsville, Texas to support the Mexican Border Campaign. Robert supplied the troops through significant personal contributions of weapons, ammunition and transport vehicles.

In 1917, Robert mustered into Federal service, becoming part of the First Infantry Division, and reported to Pershing’s headquarters in France. He served with the 5th Field Artillery of the American Expeditionary Forces and from April 20th to May 28, 1918, fought during the Battle of Cantigny. This battle affected him so strongly that after the war he renamed his Wheaton farm in its honor. He received the Distinguished Service Medal for his contributions to “the successful operations of the artillery of the American Expeditionary Forces.”

He was promoted to Lt. Colonel in June, 1918 and to Colonel of the 61st Field Artillery on September 5th. Honorably discharged on December 31st, 1918 he was known as “The Colonel” for the rest of his life.

Newsman

Robert R. McCormick’s maternal grandparents, Katherine Patrick (1831-1894) and Joseph Medill (1823-1899), laid the foundation of a media empire. In 1855 Joseph Medill purchased a 1/3 interest in the Chicago Tribune newspaper and formally incorporated the Tribune Company six years later. He purchased a controlling interest in 1874 and took over the company.

Medill wielded great power in Chicago. When the Chicago Tribune offices, and most of downtown Chicago, were obliterated in Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871, Medill borrowed a printing press. The next morning’s edition boasted: “Cheer up…Chicago shall rise again!”

Robert R. McCormick ushered in a new era when he laid the cornerstone of a new printing plant in 1920. President of Tribune Company since 1911, he expanded Tribune business ventures by forming WGN radio in 1924 and building the iconic Tribune Tower in 1925. WGN-TV joined the company in 1948.

Robert created a vast newsprint manufacturing empire to make Tribune Company a self-sufficient corporation. It included Tribune Company’s Canadian timberlands that supplied wood to their Thorold, Ontario and Baie Comeau, Quebec paper mills and 12 ships that transported rolls of newsprint to offices of the Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News.

Throughout his life, Robert staunchly defended the First Amendment to the US Constitution, paying particular interest to the rights of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press. As Chairman of the American Newspaper Publishers Association’s Committee on Freedom of the Press in 1928, he helped defeat a Minnesota gag law. His law partner, Weymouth Kirkland, argued the point to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their landmark ruling in the Near v. Minnesota case shaped key First Amendment press freedom doctrine journalists follow today.

“The newspaper is an institution developed by modern civilization to present the news of the day, to foster commerce and industry, to inform and lead public opinion, and to furnish that check upon government which no constitution has ever been able to provide.”

– Robert R. McCormick​​​

Married Man

Robert McCormick was married twice. His first wife was Amy Irwin Adams, his second was Maryland Mathison Hooper. Here are their stories. ​

​Amy Irwin Adams McCormick (1872-1939)

Amy came from an army family. Her father, Bernard John Dowling Irwin was an army surgeon who received the Medal of Honor. Her brother, George LeRoy Irwin was a West Point graduate, who served in Cuba, the Philippines and Mexico. She and Robert were married on March 10, 1915 in London. They traveled through Europe to Russia before returning to Chicago and making their home in Wheaton.

Amy served as a Red Cross nurse during World War I. After the war, she focused on activities at Cantigny. Her farm interests included raising dairy cattle and her prize winning Guernsey cows provided milk, butter and cream. She enjoyed horseback riding and co-founded the DuPage (Fox) Hunt Club. Her appreciation of dogs extended beyond her personal pets; in 1928 supported Orphans of the Storm, a no-kill shelter.

An accomplished artist, Amy collected Impressionist paintings and kept a studio on the farm’s south side. Many of her paintings are on exhibit throughout the Robert R. McCormick Museum. Amy died at Cantigny and is buried with Robert on the grounds.

Maryland Mathison Hooper McCormick (1897-1985)

​Maryland and Robert were married December 21, 1944, 5 years after Amy’s death. She moved into Cantigny with her daughters, Ann and Alice. Like Amy, Maryland enjoyed horseback riding but her interests centered on entertaining, antiques and travel rather than farming. The McCormicks threw lavish dinner parties and, on Friday nights, screened first-run Hollywood movies in their private Gold Theatre.

Maryland furnished Cantigny with antiques collected during their extensive travels. Between 1947 and 1953, they traveled in a lavishly converted B-17 bomber airplane purchased as surplus from the U. S. Air Force. They visited Japan, China, Argentina, Cuba, and much of Europe.

Upon Robert’s death, Maryland chose to live in Washington D.C., leaving the Cantigny estate to become a public park. Maryland is buried in the Medill-McCormick plot at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.​​​

Did you work for the Colonel?

Tell us Your Story​

Robert R. McCormick employed many people from farm managers to press operators. If you or a family member worked for Robert R. McCormick we’d like to speak with you. We are interested in documenting life on McCormick’s farms and life as a Chicago Tribune, WGN radio or WGN television employee. We would love to see your photographs, letters, or other material related to your employment and to speak with you to hear your story.

If you are interested in sharing your story with us, please give us a call or send us an email.

Contact Will Buhlig at 630.260.8257 or wbuhlig@cantigny.org.

Listen to the Colonel

Robert McCormick and Tribune Company recognized radio’s importance very early. After World War I, the Tribune Company built a radio receiving station at Halifax, Nova Scotia. It handled transatlantic radio traffic for a group of American newspapers. By 1921, Tribune Company saw the advantages of broadcasting Tribune-sponsored radio programs and began negotiating to buy a Chicago station. This led to the 1924 purchase of the 1000-watt station WDAP, later renamed WGN for the newspaper’s tagline: World’s Greatest Newspaper. Under Robert it became a clear channel 50,000-watt station with its own subsidiary operations (including WGN-TV which began operations in 1948). The new station pioneered many programs that we consider classics today.

As he was with newspaper content, Robert was very interested in programming, especially “Chicago Theatre of the Air” which featured his weekly address on current events and historical topics. Please click one of the audio links to hear Robert McCormick delivering one of his weekly speeches.

WGN Addition | November 23, 1945​

Chicago Theater | October 9, 1948