MEIGS, THE MAN WHO LOVED TO FLY
Merrill C. Meigs was one of those rare people with both a clear view of what the future should be and a force of will that helped create the present we now take for granted.
Meigs was struck by a vision, nearly fully formed, on the golf course at Midlothian Country Club in May of 1927. He was then the 43-year-old publisher of the Chicago Herald and Examiner.
"We were playing nine holes," he recalled later, "when we got word out there on the course that Charles Augustus Lindbergh had made it to Paris, flying alone. I had never been in an airplane in my life; but when I got back to the office, . . . we immediately started the promotion of Chicago as the world center of aviation. And I bought an airplane."
Meigs got his pilot's license later that year. When his friends and rivals, Robert R. McCormick, editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and Joseph Patterson, publisher of the New York Daily News, began to take flying lessons, too, Meigs kept ahead of them by getting a commercial license. Until nearly the day he died, he spent countless hours airborne.
Charles Lindbergh shared that vision of aviation as an aid to civic development. In the book "We," Lindbergh wrote of his barnstorming days before the Spirit of St. Louis flight:
"If a passenger must of necessity spend nearly as much time traveling from the business district out to the field as it will require him to fly from the field to his destination, then it is very probable that some other city will be selected for the stopping point."
He argued that "the cities who foresee the future of air transportation and provide suitable airports . . . will find themselves in the center of airlines radiating in every direction."
Over and over, Meigs made the same argument. In 1935, as head of the Chicago Aero Commission and a member of a federal committee to select a city site for a central airport, he said:
"There is no doubt that Chicago needs an up-to-date field within 10 minutes of the Loop. We are not going to consume a half an hour to get out to Chicago airport (Midway). Those minutes mean too much."
"There is no valid reason for objecting to the
field," Meigs said, "save the sentimental one that the waterfront should be kept
inviolate. It would mean more business for Chicago and more money spent here."
The new field opened in December 1948. A year later, all three Chicago airfields got new names. Orchard-Douglas was renamed to commemorate Navy flier and Medal of Honor winner Edward H. O'Hare. City or Chicago Airport became Midway to honor of the World War II air and sea victory at Midway Island. Northerly became Meigs Field.
When he retired from the Hearst organization in 1962, Meigs became a newspaper consultant and later took an office on the 15th floor of Tribune Tower from which, until a high-rise blocked it, he had a view of the airport that bore his name.
This life with such a strong association with flying began firmly planted on the farmland of Iowa. Meigs grew up on the family farm near Malcom far more interested in the mechanical equipment needed to produce crops than he was in the crops themselves.
At 17, he left the farm and took a job as a salesman for the Racine-based J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company. Within a year, when others his age were graduating from high school, Meigs was put in charge of Case's sales for South America. A few years later, he decided to learn Spanish and Russian and, despite lacking a high school diploma, was allowed to enroll at the University of Chicago.
He was 6-feet, 4-inches tall and athletic. In addition to competing in water polo and baseball, he played left guard on the university's 1905 championship football team coached by the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg. He was the campus correspondent for the Chicago Herald and Examiner, the paper for which he one day would become publisher.
Meigs died at 84. He had been friends with William Randolph Hearst and Henry Ford. He had given Harry Truman his first flying lessons and had passed along putting tips to the Duke of Windsor. He met public luminaries from Winston Churchill to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He had served on a commission with Lindbergh, the man who had set the focus for much of his life.
Honorary pallbearers included three U.S. senators, then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, the founder of the Bears and the then-owner of the Cubs. A poem by John Gillespie McGee was read that, in part, says:
I've topped the windswept heights
Special Thanks to the CHICAGO TRIBUNE
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