Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Flashback: Memories of John McDermott and Me Worrying About Time On My Hands During Retirement.


[Memoirs from more than 50 years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

My decision to retire at age 63 was made in one fell swoop after I grew exasperated with a strange request from General Patton to get a job in the U.S. Agriculture department for a Quaker agricultural specialist after I had earlier turned her down on the same request. It struck me that Patton was trying to show her he was a big man by ordering me to do it…so I responded by making sure she wouldn’t get the job (by blackballing her). Then I told him I had decided to retire. He said, “I hope it isn’t because of--?” I lied and said no but it was. And the decision to retire was about the second best decision I made in my life: the first being to ask a certain Miss Lillian Prescott of Chicago to marry me.

Now having announced my retirement and getting ready to attend as honoree my corporate retirement party, I wondered what I would do with my time. I had about a month to decide (the retirement to take effect on July 23, 1991, my sixty-third birthday). So I sat down with a man who was studying the same problem himself, John McDermott of Illinois Bell.

McDermott had had a career similar but not identical to mine and for most of the years where we knew each other we were adversaries—mostly friendly but for a time unfriendly. We ended up as best friends.

. He had spent a lifetime as a liberal Democrat and a reformer within the Catholic church. Born in Philadelphia in 1926 and a devoted Irish Catholic, he got involved after college in race relations. He came to Chicago in 1960 to serve as director of the Catholic Interracial Council here. The CIC was formed by those Catholics who were appalled that the Church was not more active in civil rights but was overshadowed by clergy and laity of Jewish and Protestant affiliation. McDermott was one of the most sagacious people in terms of race relations…balanced, witty and all-knowing…whom I have ever met. He was one of the first whites whom Martin Luther King and his cadre met in Chicago when they came here. They trusted John but not me at the outset because I was affiliated with a corporation while John was a 501 (c) 3, a non-profit goody two shoes type. McDermott was a good writer and a wise man but not a journalist. He ingratiated himself with liberal newspapermen of the time in Chicago and also became friends with a host of liberal Catholic clergy including Msgr. John (Jack) Egan whose interest in the inner city was great and with Fr. Andrew Greeley whose interest in publicizing himself and Democratic polity was also great.

For most of those years I veered away from McDermott (he lived with the Hyde Park University of Chicago intellectuals after all and I come from the northwest side where intellectuals have been suspect since Colonel McCormick consigned them to the third circle of hell in the 1940s) and he me because we were of different political parties. McDermott affiliated with the group associated with Sargent Shriver and his wife Eunice Kennedy as well as Patrick and Patty Crowley, liberal Democrats who had formed the Christian Family Movement. Because I was a Republican, I didn’t care to join with them but made my own fun at The Quaker Oats Company, running its tutoring program, nutrition education for poor families and the minority enterprise program. McDermott’s encouragement of liberal Catholic clergy offended me because I felt their liberality transcended race and went into endorsement of irresponsible innovations in the liturgy. We had a few spats whenever we met during that time.

Notwithstanding, when McDermott made his signal accomplishment, creation of the “Chicago Reporter,” a newsletter which concentrated on race relations…which became almost indispensable to news reporters…he asked me to become a member of its board and I did so. I served for a year or so and was unsuccessful in trying to get McDermott to focus on a sidelight of the race problem—the propensity of the Reverend Jesse Lewis Jackson to become a hustler in extortion of foundation grants and favors from white-owned companies. McDermott who was funded by the Community Renewal Society, the darling of white liberal foundations, resisted. I called him on it and he didn’t like it. Later he became quite prescient and brave in fighting the black minister hustling of Jackson.

We both lived in Washington, D. C. and in the same Shepherd Park neighborhood at the same time without knowing it. We lived about two blocks apart. He had left the CIC and had taken a job at the Urban Institute; I was an assistant secretary of commerce in charge of minority enterprise. We both returned to Chicago about the same time—in 1971. Thereafter there was a great deal of chaos involving the Church in Chicago and he and I were on different sides completely. He was aligned with Fr. Greeley in fighting what he thought was the authoritarianism of John Cardinal Cody and I was on the side of defending the Church against the insurrectionists including Greeley who was determined to ruin Cody.

Greeley had been the waspish, brilliant young writer-priest (ranking academically as tied with my own cousin, Fr. George Helfrich, as number one at Mundelein seminary). Greeley was adored and spoiled rotten by a previous prelate, Albert Cardinal Meyer (known as The Dutchman). He had been allowed to get a Ph.D at the University of Chicago and write books, patted on the head as a genius and allowed to entertain and be fawned over by the literati who also loved his obsession with the Kennedys and Democratic Irish politics. But when The Dutchman died suddenly of brain cancer, his successor was not so understanding of Greeley. The successor was Archbishop John Patrick Cody who was not gifted with much sense of diplomacy or tact but, although of liberal mien with respect to race, was unsympathetic with budding Catholic priests who wanted to write novels and hold forth in university seminars about how to bring more democracy to the Church. Thus Greeley, endowed with bitter Irishness, was made an enemy of Cody. In “getting” Cody however, Greeley overdid it.

Cody had been born in St. Louis, was secretary to Archbishop John J. Glennon, then chancellor and accompanied Glennon to Rome when he was named Cardinal. He was with Glennon in Ireland when the prelate died. Then Cody was made auxiliary bishop of St. Louis, followed by coadjutor to the bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri and later moved to New Orleans where he became archbishop. In New Orleans he became the object of national attention due to his predecessor’s efforts to desegregate the Catholic schools there. When Cody was named archbishop of Chicago, he came here as a liberal—one who believed in desegregation. This should have endeared him to Greeley and the liberals but Cody was not too fond of the self-promoting Greeley. That proved to be his downfall.

Greeley, nothing if not smart, ruined Cody by aligning himself with Roy Larson, the Lutheran minister who had become Religion Editor of the Chicago “Sun-Times.” Greeley and Larson were responsible for launching an investigation of Cody’s handling of archdiocesan money which finally got the attention of the U. S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. All the while, Cody was making himself decidedly unpopular with the average conservative white church-goers by supporting busing of inner city schools. He also tried to ingratiate himself to the dissident liberal priests by approving a “Priests’ Senate” but they were not to be appeased. Greeley and Larson ran a brilliant operation where Larson wrote that Cody was using money for his own private purposes and Greeley was the scavenger, rooting up all the information he could find against Cody and passing it on to the press. The duo’s attacks on the old man paid off.

The federal attorney probed and probed Cody to ascertain whether, as Larson and Greeley maintained, Cody was using archdiocesan funds for his own benefit. It was a hard charge to prove since Cody was operating under the doctrine of Corporation Sole which had been implemented since Cardinal Mundelein made the archbishop. The rule of an archbishop since Mundelein applied the doctrine was as a kind of absolutist regime which Cody carried out in the spirit of Mundelein. Mundelein could accomplish it but Cody, faced with the Church in a spirit of revolution from incendiary priests, could not.

As the feds continued to pursue the matter, they also came to a real matter of whether they had the power to investigate church policy. Greeley and Larson argued they did due to the non-profit nature of the Church which involved a sanction of tax exemption from the feds. At one time it seemed certain that the Vatican would remove Cody. But the story is that Cody went to Paul VI not only to plead his case but with $1 million in cash to fill the then depleted treasury of the Church. Whether Paul believed the story or regarded the cash as heaven-sent, Cody was off the hook. It would not have been the first time in the 2000-year history of the Church that a cardinal beat the rap with a Vicar of Christ who though unable to err on faith or morals is, after all, a man like all of us…the litany going all the way back to well before the Medicis.

A grand jury was en-paneled and was studying the matter when, almost as if a reprieve from heaven, the old man toppled over dead of a heart attack and accumulated aggravation at the age of 74 in 1982. At the windup, all Greeley and Larson were able to do was to create such a front-page, banner-line battering ram of headlines including the fact that the old, frosty-edged prelate had had a love affair with a woman who bore him a son (by the time of their expose she was a white-haired old Irish lady from St. Louis who had served him as closet wife and soul mate, a woman he had referred to as a “step cousin”. To me it is the height of irony that Greeley in his novels argues that celibacy is unnatural and priests should have the option of marrying…while at the same time helping to cause the death of a man who had followed instincts Greeley would call normal—falling in love with a woman and having a child with her. At least Cody wasn’t as flaky as some latter day priests (and prelates as well) who prey on altar boys and assorted other children in parochial school. It is my contention that by goading the old man to his death, Greeley and Larson will have much to answer for…but that is for Someone Else to judge.

All this is roundabout to describe my earlier estrangement from John McDermott who was aligned…not whatever with Greeley and Larson to victimize John Cody…but with those many Church liberal activists and modern liturgists who severely criticized Cody. I didn’t agree with them but their opposition was entirely honorable.

At a late stage, McDermott left the non-profit field and took up the post of director of urban affairs for Illinois Bell where he made a splendid record. When he was at Illinois Bell he and I got together and I invited him to help me run the City Club of Chicago. We did so. Then I made a huge mistake which I will always regret. McDermott wanted to succeed me as president of the City Club. This I was willing to consider but he wanted as executive vice president to turn the Club into a think tank for urban affairs. I should have agreed to that. Why I didn’t I don’t really know. There was some disagreement with the then full-time executive director, Donald Neltnor, who was a friend of mine and McDermott.

I sided unwisely with Neltnor when I should have with McDermott. Neltnor went on to prove himself not just lazy and inept but unworthy of his job from which he was ultimately discharged by me (with the consent of the board). He ultimately killed himself but his record does not suppose that he had anyone to blame for this life-taking and earlier wastrel-ing but himself. By that time, McDermott had dropped his interest in the City Club and the Club had missed a golden opportunity which could have been enhanced by Jay Doherty when it came his turn to lead the Club (which he has superbly).

My guilt at not favoring John McDermott over Neltnor in re-tailoring the City Club does not extend to my belief that John was right all the time…although with his Irish cocksuredness he would insist he was. As I was getting ready to retire at Quaker, I invited him to luncheon at the Chicago Athletic Club to get his reading on what I should do as a retiree. He was very glum.

He said, “you should understand that it will be a terrific change for you. Up to now you’ve had the resources of a multi-billion-dollar corporation of which you are the political officer. When you’re a private citizen it will be just like Billy the Kid [former Governor Bill Stratton]. You must understand that politicians won’t be interested nor will the press be in your opinions. I tell you this as a friend because shortly I will be facing the same thing when I retire from Illinois Bell shortly.”

Well, thank God, John was wrong in both matters…his and mine. I moved the very next day after my retirement to a suite at 333 North Michigan and set up Thomas F. Roeser & Associates (the associate being Lillian who stayed at home but handled my books). Not long later John retired and took an office next to mine as president of John McDermott & Associates (his associate being his wife Teresa who stayed at home but handled his books). Thenceforward we were soul brothers. Not many know this, but John had surveyed the wreckage of the city’s urban life and concluded that a retrenchment was in order. He voted for and supported to me the goals of Ronald Reagan. He was a fast supporter of pro-life and social traditionalism. He kept his old friendships with Msgr. Jack Egan who was always the old 1930s-style revolutionary…and with Andy Greeley…but I knew where his heart was.

On our last meeting before he went in for a physical checkup (for he had not been feeling well) , John was having a drink with me at the Chicago Athletic Club bar when he sipped his Martini thoughtfully, looked in the mirror across the bar and said, “I confess…that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do...” That is from the “Confideor” prayer said by the celebrant and congregation at the beginning of each Mass, a mutual confession said first by the celebrant to the people and then by the people to him before he goes up to the altar.

. I said, “what are you talking about?”

He said, “I spent a whole lot of time with the civil rights movement, marched with King, did all the things I hoped would bring equality and I feel the programs I supported, particularly under Johnson, have brought ruin to the black family. I should have spoken out sooner. All the while the people with whom I was allied—most of them—brought the scourge of abortion to us. `What I have failed to do.’ That’s what I’m talking about.”

“John,” I said, “there was never a time when you were not pro-life. Nor was there ever a time when you lacked courage. There was a time for me like that but not for you.”

He said, “thank you, my brother.”

The last days were long and anguish-filled. The last time I spoke to him was on the phone from the hospital.

“I have beaten this godamn thing,” he said. “I’ll be with you shortly, my brother.”

As I write these words I weep. He died of leukemia. He was one of the greatest men I ever knew. He died at 70. Far too early as men live today.

I went to his wake. He was laid out in St. Thomas the Apostle church in Hyde Park because the crowds were too many to accommodate a funeral home. In his breast pocket was a cigar. He smoked one, chewed one mostly, in his office next to mine. His funeral Mass was a crowded affair. A whole bloc of priests in white, lined up in pews, co-concelebrating including Andy Greeley who was his favorite. Not mine. Our eyes avoided each other when I returned from receiving the Eucharist.

Whenever I hear people talk about the old days of John McDermott the civil rights activist and how he marched with King and was thrown in jail in Chicago, I think to myself:

That’s all very well but you should have known him in his last days.

I will be with you shortly, my brother.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, as is said, for the memories, and for filling in some blanks. Your tribute to John McDermott is one of compassion and class, both in seeming short supply in these days. I do hope that you are planning a collection of these memoirs in book form. They are often priceless.