Remembering John McDermott

The Chicago Reporter staff in May 1979. From left: Brenda Eatman, Steve Askin, Julie Lobbia, Richard Stromberg, Jeannette Harris, Tom Brune, Sharon McGowan, Al Lanier, John A. McDermott, Chris Benson, Helena Appleton and Larry Tell. Chicago Reporter file photo.

The Chicago Reporter staff in May 1979. From left: Brenda Eatman, Steve Askin, Julie Lobbia, Richard Stromberg, Jeannette Harris, Tom Brune, Sharon McGowan, Al Lanier, John A. McDermott, Chris Benson, Helena Appleton and Larry Tell. Chicago Reporter file photo.

“Race,” John A. McDermott wrote, “touches everybody and everything. Racial peace and progress are more than moral ideals today. They are matters of profound self-interest to every person and institution in this community.”

That philosophy, posed in the inaugural editorial in The Chicago Reporter, was the mission of McDermott’s life and his most lasting legacy. In 1972, the civil rights activist founded a publication that he promised would go far beyond “mere muckraking.” The Reporter would be “dispassionate, accurate and constructive in its approach” to the “make or break” issue of race.

McDermott dedicated his career to fighting for racial progress. In 1960, the Philadelphia native moved to Chicago to serve as director of the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago. There, he helped organize the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic 1966 trip to Chicago, as well as King’s meeting with then-Mayor Richard J. Daley. He also marched with King in Selma, Ala., and in Chicago. And McDermott helped create the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, a Chicago-based fair housing group.

McDermott served as editor and publisher of the Reporter from 1972 to 1985. Chicago magazine once hailed McDermott the “Editor for the Public Conscience.” His publication became the foremost, most trusted resource on race and poverty in the city, winning more than 30 journalism awards under his tenure.

“John was a man of immense dignity. His exacting standards could be seen in the precision of his bearing, from the meticulously trimmed goatee to the trademark bow tie,” wrote Ronni Scheier, who served as the Reporter’s co-managing editor in the 1980s.

McDermott mentored dozens of journalists. “John cared deeply for those whose careers he nurtured. He never ceased advising, guiding,” Scheier added.

After he left the Reporter, McDermott found new ways to prod policymakers to action. He served as director of urban affairs at Illinois Bell Telephone Co. The longtime Hyde Park resident also founded and chaired the Committee on Decent Unbiased Campaign Tactics, an election watchdog group. McDermott retired from Illinois Bell in 1992 and established a consulting firm focusing on corporate public policy and urban affairs.

He passed away in 1996 after a long battle with leukemia, leaving behind his wife, Marie Therese, and three sons: John Jr., Michael and Matthew.

And an award-winning news organization that continues McDermott’s original charge: To “tell it like it is.”

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