William D. Maxwell · 1978
By Richard S. Nichols
Donald Maxwell’s life began August 12, 1900, in Greencastle, Indiana. His father, Harry L. Maxwell, was a Methodist gospel singer from whom Maxwell derived a deep religious faith. His mother, Grace Beck Maxwell, a high school English teacher, is credited with instilling in her son the ability to write clearly and concisely. In his youth, Maxwell was affectionately called “Donnie” by his younger brother Phil but carried the more formal name “Don” when addressed by his parents.
Maxwell began his lifelong association with the newspaper profession as a carrier/salesman for the Greencastle Daily Banner at age 12. He received front page coverage for winning second place in an essay contest sponsored by the Banner and was impressed by the power of the press. During his high school days, Maxwell was a correspondent for both the Banner and the Greencastle Herald. Besides earning $6 per week, he gained free admission to area sports events and again appreciated his association with newspapers.
Maxwell entered DePauw University in 1917 while working as city and managing editor for the Herald during an illness of the regular editor. In his junior year, he became editor of the DePauw Daily and in the summer of 1919 became general assignment reporter for the Cleveland Press.
Maxwell transferred to the University of Chicago for his final year of college. He also inquired through a distant relative about the possibility of joining the Chicago Tribune as a full-time employee. Before he could complete college, he received a call from the Tribune. Without hesitating, Maxwell left college to begin a career with the paper spanning five decades.
Soon after joining the Tribune, Maxwell married a DePauw classmate, Marjorie Thomas, of Rushville, Indiana. The couple honeymooned on a train bound for Vancouver, British Columbia, where Maxwell spent a short time as “exchange reporter” on the Vancouver Sun. During their marriage, the Maxwells were to have one son, David Beck Maxwell.
Maxwell’s first assignment with the Chicago Tribune was covering court proceedings at the county and federal buildings, along with handling the Tribune leased wire. He moved through a variety of reporting positions before becoming editor in 1955, a position he held until 1969. Upon his retirement, Maxwell served as editorial chairman of the Tribune Company and as trustee of the McCormick-Patterson Trust, which held controlling interest of the Tribune Company until it was dissolved in April 1975.
Maxwell provided leadership for a number of professional journalism organizations and other institutions, including McCormick Place, Chicago’s outstanding convention hall. Although his career took him to Chicago, Maxwell remained a Hoosier all his life and was president of the Indiana Society of Chicago. In 1952, he received an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from DePauw University for his achievements in journalism.
Maxwell died of an apparent heart attack Thursday, May 22, 1975, in Chicago, Illinois. At the time of his death, he was enroute to a meeting of the Robert R. McCormick Charitable Trust.
Donald Maxwell devoted his entire working career to the advancement of journalism and distinguished himself as editor of the Chicago Tribune for more than 20 years. He was hired by the Tribune as a reporter in 1920 and rose rapidly within the organization: copy reader, 1922-25; sports editor, 1925-30; news editor 1930-38; city editor and assisting managing editor, 1938-51; managing editor and editor, 1955-69; 1st vice president, Tribune Company, 1961-75.
Maxwell was described as an imaginative and innovative editor, fertile in ideas and energetic in execution. He believed that an editor could best direct the flow of news by sitting at the Tribune’s center desk, where the news executives were stationed, and reading the news content of the paper before it went to the composing room. Maxwell stated that the formula for newspaper success was obsessive curiosity, hard work, and the ability to distinguish right from wrong.
As editor, Maxwell was instrumental in building a case against William Heirens in the murder of Suzanne Degnan, after a seemingly hopeless search for the killer. Heirens later confessed in one of the most sensational murder cases of the 1940s.
In 1951, Maxwell personally called the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo after the Truman administration had attempted to suppress a critical speech by the general. Maxwell pointed out that the speech was already being printed by a national news magazine, and succeeded in making it available to all publications. The incident was one of a series which led President Truman to recall MacArthur.
Maxwell used his influence in 1955 to require the State Department to release the previously secret report on the Yalta conference after the department had attempted to leak the texts exclusively to The New York Times. Although the department withheld release until 4 p.m., the Tribune, in its final editions of March 17, 1955, published a complete 32-page section of the decisions of this crucial meeting between Franklin Roosevelt, Josef Stalin, and Winston Churchill.
As editor of the Tribune, Maxwell traveled abroad almost yearly for liaison with his foreign staff. He was received by leading statesmen where ever he went and developed a close relationship with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Great Britain. He contributed news reports on his travels, including his account of a motor trip in 1959 through East Germany and Poland to the Soviet Union, and his impressions of the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
Maxwell made innovative contributions as sports editor of the Chicago Tribune. He was the first sports editor to provide extensive coverage of the Chicago Bears football team and helped professional football gain national attention. He also organized, with Paul Gallico, sports editor of The New York News, the Golden Gloves boxing tournament and conceived and promoted other popular Tribune sports events which benefited charity.
Throughout his career, Maxwell was a strong defender of freedom of the press. Under his leadership, the Tribune successfully intervened in an appeal by The New York Times from a libel award granted a police commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1966, the Tribune was a friend of the court in another successful appeal from a libel award against the Associated Press won by former General Edwin A. Walker. Maxwell repeatedly directed editorials which defended the rights of a free press in crime news reporting.
Don Maxwell’s life was focused on his career as a journalist. He was a member of Phi Kappa Psi and Sigma Delta Chi. He served as a director of the Associated Press and was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Maxwell’s other interests included higher education and he served as trustee to DePauw University and Northwestern University. He also became quite interested in developing a first-rate convention center in Chicago. He worked behind the scenes to secure necessary legislation and financing to construct McCormick Place on the Chicago lakefront in 1960. When the original structure was destroyed by fire in 1967, Maxwell again gathered necessary support to build an even greater hall, which remains today. In recognition of his contribution to McCormick Place, the main assembly area of the new structure has been named Don Maxwell Hall.
Maxwell was a trustee of a number of trusts, including the McCormick-Patterson Trust, which controlled the interests of the Tribune Company. He was trustee of the Robert R. McCormick Charitable Trust and trustee of the Cantigny Charitable Trust which was responsible for opening Colonel Robert McCormick’s ancestral home to the public.
Don Maxwell’s life demonstrates excellence in his career and other activities. He was a noted humorist, and in a 1964 interview included himself as a target for his wit: “One time my brother, Phil, who is director of the Chicago Music Festival sponsored by the Chicago Tribune Charities, and who also had a radio program, returned to Greencastle on a visit. While there he went around to see our old second grade teacher, Etta Adams. She said, ‘Phil, we’re proud of you here. Your Music Festival, your radio shows. But tell me, whatever happened to your brother, Don?'”
No one who has a passing interest in journalism needs to ask whatever happened to W. Donald Maxwell.