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Death of a Star

John McDermott's Little Universe



John McDermott died last month. If you didn't know him, what a shame. He was one of the great figures of recent Chicago history--a crusader for civil rights who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., founded the Chicago Reporter, and dedicated his life to the cause of racial integration.

At the Reporter he made his writers keep themselves out of their copy--only he got to use the "I" word, and then only in editorials. But I'll have to break his rule for this story.

Fourteen years ago McDermott hired me to work at the Reporter, giving me the biggest break of my career; even today I can feel his influence almost every time I sit down to write.

John was already a bit of a local civil rights legend when I met him. Born in Philadelphia in 1926, he moved to Chicago in 1960 to become executive director of the Catholic Interracial Council. Six years later he was marching for open housing on the southwest side, where he, King, and others were showered with cherry bombs, bottles, and cries of "Nigger, go home!"

In 1972 he and journalist Lillian Calhoun started the Reporter, as he once put it, "to use local investigative journalism to give a searching look at race relations and urban affairs." It was an eight-page, not-for-profit monthly newsletter, funded by donations and read by one or two thousand fiercely devoted subscribers. It specialized in dispassionately written accounts of racial inequities, based on tedious investigations of budgets, census data, and other boring information. Because it was so objective, because the writers, as John ordered, "saved the preaching for Sunday," the Reporter's stories were credible beyond refute. Politicians responded to the exposes with promises of change, while reporters from the mainstream dailies reworked them under their own bylines. The newspaper exposed all sorts of discrimination and won dozens of journalism awards.

The little universe John created was far more entertaining than any article he ever ran. He attracted an eclectic bunch of outspoken, headstrong, idealistic young writers of all races, religions, and ethnicities. There were poets and playwrights, socialists, nationalists, even a conservative or two. How he decided to pick one applicant over another was always a mystery, since he never seemed to listen to anything anyone said, at least not during a job interview. An eloquent speaker, John adored an audience; and what more captive audience was there than a starstruck young writer eager for a job.

He'd walk us down a long carpeted aisle, white walls lined with journalism plaques and shelves of trophies, sit us in front of his big mahogany desk over which hung a framed picture of himself holding hands with King singing, as he would later tell us, "We Shall Overcome." Lighting his pipe, he'd lean back in his leather swivel chair, ask a question, and then interrupt our rambling replies with his own stories. Can you blame him? We had seen so little yet talked so much. How much babble could one man take? In my case I offered some half-baked opinion about how the civil rights activists went wrong. He interrupted with a stirring account of what it was like to march with King, protected from the mob by a thin line of helmeted police, as the bottles and cherry bombs fell: "My God, it was pure, total hate--almost like war. But there was a great camaraderie on the part of the marchers, black and white. You stood up for something you believed in, took a risk, put your life on the line. There was a wonderful sense of joy in being alive, a pride in being part of the group."

How could any of us resist his offer? We all wanted to believe that given the chance we would have the courage to join the marchers and defy the mob. Signing up with John was our little way of joining a greater campaign. He pretty much let us write about what we wanted, so long as we followed Reporter style. He kept his door open; we could come in and see him anytime. He labored over our copy, writing pages of comments. He offered a great opportunity to learn the city with him as our teacher, perpetually reminding us to be fair to each side of an issue, to appreciate irony, and to read more about the past.

What a contrast we made. We writers were young, unmarried, secular, and liberal (most of us anyway), constantly moving from one apartment to another, with few outside off-work endeavors other than party and play.

He had a wife (Theresa) and three children (John Jr., Michael, and Matthew), and was devoutly Catholic and conservative on most issues (oh, the arguments over abortion). He lived in a gorgeous Queen Anne house in Kenwood, which he rehabbed himself; he was a fixture in his community, always at one meeting or another, serving on the boards of the local not-for-profit development corporation, community organization, cooperative grocery store, historical society, and church.

Occasionally he and Theresa invited us to their home for cocktails. We wandered through the living room, library, dining room, and kitchen admiring his handiwork, and out to the garden in the back. "He loved that garden," says his oldest son, John Jr. "After work, he liked to fix himself a little drink and go out and admire his garden."

On most days he lunched at the Cliff Dwellers, a private club on Michigan Avenue. There he reigned supreme, gliding from one table to the next, dispensing handshakes and advice before sitting down to dine. I once joined him for lunch with Tom Ayers, the head of Commonwealth Edison. They were friends. Ayers asked about John's children. John talked about his sailboat (he loved sailing), and offered a thorough analysis of the news of the day. When the waiter came, John ordered for us--he knew what was good on the menu. I sat back and watched the master at work as he demonstrated how the game was played. On the way back to the office he had a bounce to his walk, as if to say: Damn, I was good. A few weeks later Ayers's financial contribution arrived at the Reporter. John kept the paper going by dining at the Cliff Dwellers.

On Fridays the conversation was a little livelier, as he brought us into the conference room to break bread so we'd feel less like staff and more like family. Sometimes there were guests (usually activists like Al Raby, Don Rose, or Quentin Young), but mostly it was just us. Meals were prepared by Helena Appleton, the office manager, who was married to Junior, a city garbage-truck driver, who seemed to know every secret worth knowing about Chicago's black politicians.

Helena and Junior were generous people who regularly invited friends to their bungalow on the far south side for a feast of ribs and fried chicken. In 1984 they had a Super Bowl bash, with people spilling off of the sofas and onto the floor. In a chair at the back of the living room sat Big Red, a loud, roaring mountain of a man in bright orange pants. Within an hour Big Red fell into a stupor, halfway between consciousness and sleep, from having consumed too much beer. "Red," Junior barked, slapping his big friend on the thigh. "Hey, Red. Wake up, you big fat old fool."

Big Red harmlessly mumbled, weakly attempting to slap away Junior's hand. It was like watching a sparrow prance on the teeth of a tiger--his feebleness only made Junior laugh.

In 1984 after Jesse Jackson was caught referring to Jews as "Hymies," John called me and another reporter, Kevin Blackistone, into his office and told us to write a story about blacks and Jews in Chicago. As with most assignments, he suggested we start by interviewing his old friends, plucking from his massive Rolodex the names of rabbis, ministers, activists, and priests who might have something interesting to say on the subject. For the next few weeks we drove all over town visiting synagogues, churches, businesses, storefront organizations, and schools, eventually finding ourselves in Reverend James Bevel's west-side apartment. In his day Bevel had been one of King's closest (and most eccentric) advisers, a fiery, yarmulke-wearing Baptist preacher. For our benefit he delivered a rambling lecture on everything from black-Jewish to the proper function of the colon. As we headed for the door, baffled and amazed, Bevel said, "Don't forget to tell McDermott I said hi."

A week after our article ran a tall, handsome black man appeared in the office, wearing a flowing white robe, carrying a golden staff, and claiming to be a prince of the Black Hebrew sect (descendants of ancient Israelites). He requested a meeting with John, wanting to air his views on blacks and Jews. "I can't remember his name, but he called himself a plenipotentiary," Blackistone recalls. "After their meeting John said, 'I didn't know what the hell to call the guy. Prince? Your highness? What?'"

Only John's universe was diverse enough to include Big Red, Reverend Bevel, Tom Ayers, and a plenipotentiary.

"He had a fullness in every aspect of his life," says John Jr. "It wasn't just his job, but also his neighborhood, his family, his church, his house, the sailboat, and his friends."

In 1984 John left the Reporter to become director of urban affairs for Illinois Bell (today the Reporter's emphasis is generally less on racial than on urban issues). Two years later Helena and Junior died; most of the old staff went separate ways and it got harder for us to keep in touch, though John did the best he could. Most of us knew he had leukemia. Still, it was a painful shock to hear that he died.

One of the last times I saw John was when he invited me to speak about race and politics at a meeting he'd convened at the Standard Club, an exclusive Jewish social club. It was a vintage McDermott affair, about 30 or so movers and shakers sitting around a table. I began with a little joke about how it took an Irish Catholic named McDermott to get a nice Jewish boy into the Standard Club. Most of my listeners barely grunted, but John laughed long and loud. He got a big kick out of getting me into that club, if only for lunch. It was like taking another scruffy young reporter to the Cliff Dwellers. Another barrier broken, another opportunity offered. His door was open until the day he died.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Al Raby, McDermott, Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, June 26, 1965 photo reprinted with permission, Chicago Sun-Time copyright 1996.

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