Correction to This Article
The Aug. 29 obituary of Robert F. McDermott, retired chief executive of the USAA insurance company, gave the wrong name for the company. It is the United Services Automobile Association.

Robert McDermott; Air Force Academy Dean

Robert F. McDermott, who flew 61 combat missions in Europe as a P-38 fighter pilot in World War II, joined the staff of the new Air Force Academy in 1954.
Robert F. McDermott, who flew 61 combat missions in Europe as a P-38 fighter pilot in World War II, joined the staff of the new Air Force Academy in 1954. (U.s. Air Force Academy)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Robert F. McDermott, 86, a retired Air Force brigadier general who influenced the way the Air Force Academy teaches its cadets and went on to transform the USAA insurance company into a front-ranked financial services institution, died Aug. 28 at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Tex. He had a stroke.

Gen. McDermott, a decorated fighter pilot in World War II, joined the staff of the newly established Air Force Academy in Colorado in 1954. He became permanent dean of the faculty in 1959, making him head of all academic programs and giving him the military equivalent of tenure. That granted him more power to challenge traditions in military education.

At the Air Force Academy, his biggest contribution was trying to avoid the rigid approach to science and engineering course requirements that had long been enforced at rival service academies. Gen. McDermott was credited with introducing about 30 academic majors to the Air Force Academy and bringing a degree of flexibility to curriculum requirements.

He was motivated by what he saw as unnecessary overlapping of course work. As a young man, he took the same subjects at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., that he had at a private military college in Vermont.

Paul Ringenbach, a retired Air Force colonel and USAA executive who wrote a biography of the general, said Gen. McDermott faced strong objections among traditionalists at first.

But very quickly, Ringenbach said, the academy was showing much higher application rates than West Point or the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. This led the other service academies to follow Gen. McDermott's curriculum example.

Gen. McDermott also had a major role in starting an astronautics program -- one of first in the country -- to support the new space program.

He also introduced the "whole man" concept to admissions policy, in essence looking at moral and leadership attributes among applicants in addition to the standard focus on academic scores and physical ability. By the time Gen. McDermott retired in 1968, the academy had about 10 Rhodes Scholars in as many years.

In the second phase of his career, Gen. McDermott spent 24 years as chief executive of the United States Automobile Association, a San Antonio-based company that specializes in serving military veterans and their families.

He described in interviews the great waste in the insurance business: mountains of unprocessed paperwork and little regard for the customer. In one key early move, he pushed for automation to better track correspondence with USAA members.

Within the company, he was a leading force for minority hiring and equalizing wages. He established four-day workweeks and made employee child care a feature to attract working mothers. "You don't lead by being authoritarian," he said.

Although the board was initially resistant, Gen. McDermott was able to expand the company into banking services and mutual fund and real estate investment. USAA also became an investor in a San Antonio theme park called Fiesta Texas, which was later sold to Six Flags.

Under Gen. McDermott, USAA grew from a property insurance company with 2,600 employees and $200 million in assets into a massive financial service institution with more than 16,000 employees and $30 billion in assets. USAA also became the fifth-largest insurer of private automobiles and the nation's fourth-largest homeowners insurer.

He had a reputation as a rare maverick in the insurance business, most notably advocating air bags as a crucial safety measure when auto manufacturers were saying it was too costly.

"The Europeans have been more safety-conscious," Gen. McDermott once told the Associated Press. "The marketing philosophies in the United States have been to sell the automobile as a pleasure vehicle: love, dating and marriage and the macho image, speed. Safety was a no-no in the auto industry for 25 years or so."

Robert Francis McDermott was born in Boston on July 31, 1920, and raised in the suburb of Readville.

He graduated from Boston Latin School in 1937 and from West Point in January 1943. He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II, flying 61 combat missions in Europe as a P-38 fighter pilot.

He received a master's degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1950 and taught social sciences at West Point. He wrote books on finance for service personnel that caught the attention of USAA President Charles Cheever, and this relationship led to his later recruitment to the insurance company.

His military decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star and six awards of the Air Medal.

Through civic and business organizations, Gen. McDermott had leading roles in San Antonio's economic development, and in the mid-1990s, he was chairman of an investor group that bought the San Antonio Spurs for $85 million.

Among his achievements was recruiting head Coach Gregg Popovich, who has led the Spurs to three NBA championships since being hired in 1995. He also dismissed Dennis Rodman, the boastful and flamboyant defensive player who contrasted starkly with the new owner's "values-oriented approach" to the team.

The general also was a skilled trombonist. He played in the Boston Latin School orchestra alongside Leonard Bernstein (both won the school's top musical prize) and in later years took out the instrument to add a little pizazz to economic development news conferences in San Antonio.

His first wife, Alice McDermott McDermott, whom he married in 1943, died in 1990.

Survivors include his wife, Marion Slemon "Marnie" McDermott, whom he married in 1994, of San Antonio; five children from his first marriage; three sisters; 14 grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company