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Robert McCormick, who managed McCormick family estate, dies

Rob McCormick

Rob McCormick

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Updated: July 27, 2012 6:26AM

“What hath the reaper wrought?”

Every year, Robert “Rob” Hall McCormick posed that question at an annual Chicago gathering of some of the heirs to the McCormick reaper fortune. His query — and his bonhomie and fine champagne — kicked off many rollicking evenings when McCormick descendants shared family triumphs, legends and laughter.

From about 1970 to 1990, Mr. McCormick managed the Leander J. McCormick Estate, which was established in the 1880s. In addition to handling its commercial real estate purchases, renovations and sales in downtown Chicago, he reported to a group of about 60 heirs, ranging in age from 18 to 90. They were scattered from Illinois to California, as well as England, France and Italy, and they had varying degrees of knowledge about real estate.

When they gathered at an annual meeting in Chicago, some asked pointed or well-informed questions about the workings of the Leander J. McCormick Estate, which included the McCormick Building at 332 S. Michigan and the landmark Roanoke Building, 11 S. LaSalle. Others needed the basics explained to them.

Mr. McCormick dealt with all the heirs with equanimity, gravitas and humor, relatives said, chiseling consensus from the different personalities in the group.

“His gift was to handle them with respect,” said a cousin, Joan B. Claybrook.

“He was one of those guys who could smooth things over with a good joke,” said another cousin, Warren Buckler.

After a day of reporting to the heirs about the estate, nighttime was for fun. Mr. McCormick hosted laughter-filled get-togethers at some of Chicago’s finest restaurants, where he arranged the seating so different generations of McCormicks, the old and the young, could get to know each other and hear family lore.

“It kept us all together as a family, particularly the younger cousins,” said another cousin, Andy Austin.

Older relatives regaled the young with the story about his Great-Grand Aunt Elizabeth, a costume collector who dreamed that if she rode a mule across the Pyrenees, she would find the royal christening gown of the Spanish Infanta. Or the stories about his wheelchair-bound grandfather, Robert Hall McCormick, whose visually impaired chauffeur had trouble reading road signs.

During one memorable evening in Chicago, a Latin-American dictator was staying at the Ritz-Carlton, where they dined. When the champagne bills were presented, a tongue-in-cheek Rob McCormick signed the checks ‘‘El Generalissimo.”

He loved to dance. Austin said she will always carry an image of him dancing at the Quadrangle Club in Hyde Park, a napkin stuck on his forehead to soak up the glow.

He died at his home in Genoa City, Wis., earlier this month of ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Relatives said his joy in life remained undiminished throughout the course of his illness. He continued to watch televised golf tournaments with a relish that most sports fans reserve for a live boxing match.

His wife, Anne, said his spirit touched his hospice nurse, who said: “It’s such a joy to come here and have somebody make me laugh.”

Mr. McCormick, 68, was born in Chicago and raised in New Canaan, Conn. He attended the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut before joining the Army. He was stationed in Germany in the early 1960s. After gaining experience in New York real estate, he relocated to Chicago in 1970.

He began managing the estate of Leander J. McCormick. History books usually credit the invention of the reaper to Leander’s brother, Cyrus, but some members of Rob McCormick’s branch of the family hold that the machine was invented by Robert Hall McCormick — father of Cyrus and Leander — and that Cyrus improved and patented it.

Mr. McCormick “took care of people,” Claybrook said. When he discovered the estate’s diligent, longtime accountant had no pension, he prevailed on the heirs to establish one, she said.

He loved food. At a reunion in February, his sisters, Barbara Bailey and Deborah Wright, delighted in cooking for him.

“We made him pot roast and mashed potatoes and red cabbage,” said Barbara Bailey. Afterward, Deborah Wright said, he thanked them with the same joie de vivre-infused comment he made after every dinner: “That was the best meal I’ve ever had.”

He enjoyed trips to Mexico. “He didn’t speak the language, but he would go into any situation and he would have people laughing,” said another cousin, Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson.

Mr. McCormick also is survived by his son, Jeffrey; four stepchildren, Christine Maynard, Valerie Swanson, and Steven and Michael Galvan; his other siblings, Matthew McCormick, Blaine Mallory and Ben Mallory; three grandchildren, and 10 step-grandchildren. Instead of a memorial, his wife said, he asked for a party. It’s being planned.

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