Brigadier General Robert F. McDermott 1930-2006

Air Power History, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

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. …

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