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Brigadier General Robert F. McDermott 1930-2006.

A determined leader and dynamic innovator, Brig. Gen. Robert F. McDermott, USAF (Ret.) died after a stroke in San Antonio, Texas, on August 28, 2006. McDermott pioneered the development of the pace-setting academic programs at the brand-new United States Air Force Academy. After retiring from the Air Force, he expanded USAA from a small automobile insurance firm into a giant financial services company.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 31, 1920, "McD", as he was publicly known to his peers and superiors and privately among those of us who were his junior officers, graduated from the Boston Latin School in 1937 and studied for two years at Norwich University. He won an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1939. In 1942, he and his classmates who successfully completed flight training won their wings. Upon his early graduation and commissioning in January 1943, Second Lieutenant Mc Dermott went to California for training in the Lockheed P-38 Lightning with the newly formed 474th Fighter Group. He flew 61 combat missions in the European Theatre, became Assistant Group Operations Officer for the 474th Fighter Group and earned the Bronze Star, the Air Medal with the Silver Oak Leaf Cluster, and the European Theater of Operations ribbon with six battle stars.

After the war, McDermott stayed in Europe for duty on General Eisenhower's staff. Pentagon service came next, followed by his selection to study for an MBA degree at the Harvard Business School that prepared him for a tour as an economics instructor at West Point. He told me when I was working for him as a faculty member at the Air Force Academy that he had sought exchange pilot duty with the U.S. Navy after his service at West Point. In the meantime, Lt. Gen. Hubert Harmon, the director of the planning for the future Air Force Academy and Superintendent-designate, intervened to bring him to that institution in 1954 as Professor of Economics and Vice Dean of the Faculty at its temporary location on Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colorado.

Appointed Dean of the Faculty in 1956 and a Permanent Professor in 1957, he began to push curriculum initiatives that would challenge cadets to broaden and deepen their education and introduced admission policies that favored those future cadets who met the "whole man" mental, physical, and character standards. His initiatives got the attention of the other service academies, which had long offered only a lock-step education. Also, his leadership won the highly unusual academic accreditation of the Academy before its first class had graduated in 1959 from its permanent site near Colorado Springs.

The excitement of the Academy's opening at its permanent site in August 1958 permeated its temporary faculty offices when I reported there from graduate school in that month as a new captain. An early invitation to lunch with other recent arrivals at the Dean's table on the staff tower of the just-opened dining hall (later dedicated as Mitchell Hall) gave me my first contact with then-Colonel McDermott, unmistakably a feisty Irish American, New England accent and all. President Eisenhower would nominate him in 1959, with Congressional approval, to be the Academy's first Permanent Dean of the Faculty with the rank of brigadier general.

He would serve as Dean of the Faculty until 1968. In two separate tours of duty across seven of those twelve years, I and many other faculty members had regular opportunities to see him in action or to be aware of his tireless involvement as an "around the clock" worker in shaping new academic initiatives and making his presence felt in all aspects of the Academy's life. One special sign of his presence was the trombone he played so well at social functions; another was his large family. When the end of his twelfth year as Dean approached, however, one sensed that he felt he had "topped out" professionally as an Air Force officer and was ready to move on to a new career. He retired from the Air Force with the Distinguished Service Medal after accepting an invitation in the Fall of 1968 to move to San Antonio as Executive Vice President of USAA (then, United Services Automobile Association). By January 1969, he was the head of USAA and was on his way to an extraordinary business career, although never far away from his military and especially, his Air Force ties through his contacts with the primary customers of the USAA.

Through his leadership in maximizing the involvement of its employees in the life and work of USAA and the surrounding community and in developing easy working relationships with the people the company served, its membership grew four hundred percent and its assets increased from $207 million to over $30 billion. A significant corollary to his leadership of USAA was his leadership in promoting the economic development of his company's host, the City of San Antonio. In rapid succession, he led, among other activities, the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce in 1974; in the next year, he founded the Economic Development Foundation and was its Chairman until 1980. In 1984, he co-founded the Texas Research and Technology Foundation to start the development of the Texas Research Park. During the same decade, he began a volunteer corps and mentor program at USAA to involve company employees in social and charitable efforts throughout their city.

In 1993, he became Chairman Emeritus of USAA, devoting himself to community work with business and charitable activities. An abundance of state, national and institutional recognition had already begun to come his way during and after the nineteen-eighties, to include his induction into the Texas Business Hall of Fame in 1987 and the American National Business Hall of Fame in 1989; West Point gave him its Distinguished Graduate Award in 1993; Harvard Business School singled him out in 1998 for its highest honor, the Alumni Achievement Award, in recognition of his attainments at the Air Force Academy and USAA. In 1991, The City of San Antonio recognized his many contributions by naming part of Interstate Highway 10 West after him and the Air Force Academy named its Cadet Library in his honor in 2003.

His Funeral Mass in San Antonio on September 1, 2006 drew a capacity audience. A majority of those attending understandably were past or present USAA employees, who had risen to identify themselves when invited by the pastor of the church. His family of five children and their spouses, fourteen grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren were strongly represented. The memorable one hour and forty-five minute service was marked by eulogies and hymns including "On Eagle's Wings" and a very appropriate trombone rendition of "When the Saints Come Marching In". Later that day, his body was buried with full military honors at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

His first wife, another McDermott, Alice Patricia, whom he had married on the day after his graduation from West Point, preceded him in death in 1990. He married his second wife in 1994, Marion Slemon of Colorado, who was the widow of the former Deputy Commander of the North American Air Defense Command, Canadian Air Marshal, C. Roy Slemon.

General "McD" made a special mark in both war and peace through his service in combat, in powerfully helping to strengthen the education of future Air Force officers and leaders, and in his remarkable leadership in business and community service.

A tribute by Brig. Gen. Alfred F. Hurley, USAF (Ret.)
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Publication:Air Power History
Article Type:Obituary
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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