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#23 Robert F. McDermott: A maverick in education, insurance and basketball

Bicentennial Admin 200 Things about Norwich, Leaders & Legacy

General Robert F. McDermottWhen Robert F. McDermott, NU Class of 1941, became the first dean of the U.S. Air Force Academy, he took some lessons from Alden Partridge’s playbook. General McDermott created the first service academy program that blended military training with the “whole person” concept. Like Norwich founder Captain Partridge, General McDermott emerged as a pioneer in higher and military education.

After studying at Norwich, McDermott entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and graduated in 1943. He served in the Army Air Force during WWII, flying 61 combat missions as a P-38 fighter pilot and received the Bronze Star, the Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters, the European Theater of Operations Ribbon with six battle stars, as well as the Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit.

Robert McDermott in a P-38In 1954 McDermott joined the staff of the newly established U.S. Air Force Academy. President Eisenhower appointed General McDermott as the first permanent professor of the Academy in 1957 and as the first dean of faculty in 1959. The promotion to brigadier general that accompanied his appointment made McDermott the youngest general or flag officer on active duty at that time. It also gave him the military equivalent of tenure and the power to challenge traditions in military education.

Among his first steps, McDermott instituted a comprehensive curriculum enrichment program designed to challenge cadets to advance as far and as fast as they could based on their aptitudes, interests, and prior preparation.

McDermott also wanted to change the science and engineering courses required at other service academies, many of which he was forced to retake after leaving Norwich for West Point. As a result, he introduced about 30 academic majors to the Air Force Academy, bringing a degree of flexibility to curriculum requirements.

In another service academy first, McDermott introduced the concept of selecting candidates based on moral and leadership attributes, as well as physical and mental qualifications.

Brig. Gen. McDermott faced strong objections among traditionalists at the start. However application rates to the Air Force Academy quickly grew and soon surpassed those for West Point or the U.S. Naval Academy. Over time, this led the other service academies to follow Brig. Gen. McDermott’s curriculum example.

McDermott also wrote books on finance for service personnel, which attracted the attention of Charles Cheever, the president of the USAA insurance company. In 1968, McDermott retired from the Air Force and moved to San Antonio to become USAA’s chief executive officer. Under his leadership, USAA grew from the 16th to the 5th largest insurer of private automobiles in the nation and the 4th largest home insurer.

As in his role as an educator, Brig. Gen. McDermott developed a reputation as a maverick in the insurance business. He advocated for air bags as a crucial safety measure despite the objections of auto manufacturers, who claimed they were too costly. He hired minorities and equalized wages. He established four-day workweeks and made employee child care a feature to attract working mothers.

Brig. Gen. McDermott also played a leading role in the economic development of San Antonio. In the mid-1990s, he led an investor group that bought the San Antonio Spurs basketball franchise. In a controversial move, he hired Gregg Popovich to be the club’s coach and general manager. Popovich had limited experience, however Brig. Gen. McDermott was impressed by his character, military record, and leadership qualities. General McDermott’s faith in Popovich’s leadership abilities has paid off. In February 2015, Popovich became the ninth coach in NBA history to win 1,000 games.

Brig. Gen. McDermott died in August 2006 at the age of 86. Paul Ringenbach, a retired Air Force colonel and USAA executive, who wrote a biography of his boss said, “General McDermott fought traditional ways of doing things and thinking about things and opened doors to something different. He made significant changes wherever he went.”