Eugene F. McDonald was born March 11, 1886 in Syracuse, New York, and earned his first money while a schoolboy by reading electric meters. School did not appeal to Mr. McDonald and at the end of his sophomore year he left school to take a factory job with the Franklin Automobile Company. In high school he developed a business of repairing electric doorbells.
Moving to Chicago he became an automobile salesman and, as a publicity stunt, once drove a car up the steps of the General Logan Monument in Grant Park - with a photographer present and a policeman to arrest him. He paid the policeman $10 for the arrest. He was the first to offer “professionals,” like plumbers and painters, a payment plan for the purchase of an automobile.
When the United States entered World War I, he enlisted in the Naval intelligence service and eventually became a lieutenant commander. He kept the title for the rest of his life. With two other men he founded the Zenith Corporation in 1923. From the call letters of their amateur station, 9-2n, they developed the trade name of Z-Nith and thus the name Zenith. The company survived the Great Depression and was soon the leader of radio manufacturers. At the same time Commander McDonald launched a career as an explorer and adventurer that publicized the Zenith products and sent sales to new records.
He formed and was the first president of the National Association of Broadcasters and pioneered the development of the short-wave radio. When Donald B. MacMillan (a Scot?) made his Arctic trip he was equipped with transmitters and receivers supplied by the Zenith Corporation. “He expanded the radio medium into international communications, ship-to-shore, radar, and VHF and UHF television.” The company slogan was: “The quality goes in before the name goes on."
Mr. McDonald was married once but divorced in 1947. There were two children born to the marriage: Jean Marianne and Eugene McDonald, Jr. The son was known as “Stormy” and he met a tragic and somewhat mysterious death in 1958. His body was brought back to Chicago from Arizona where a funeral service was conducted. His place of burial is unknown. It is very possible that his daughter may still be living, perhaps in California, and it appears there may also be grandchildren living.
Thirteen years after his death, his former wife sought to have the divorce set aside. There was a long and ugly trial played out in the local newspapers. The children sided with the mother but she was finally denied her request. The McDonald estate was estimated to be worth $30 million but there were also lower estimates given as well.
The Zenith Corporation was a great company and a good example to others. During the Great Depression, Zenith employees took less pay and worked longer hours to keep the company alive. As the economy improved, Comdr. McDonald rewarded them with greater ownership and a share of the company profits. I have to assume from his name that he was Scottish but I don’t know that for sure. Perhaps someone can help me with that information. There is no record of him participating in any of our Saint Andrew Society events.
Eugene F. McDonald died May 15, 1958, in Billings Hospital, Chicago, Illinois. His place of burial is not known as of this writing.
He was succeeded at Zenith by Hugh Robertson. Mr. Robertson was born in Glasgow, Scotland. More about him later.
Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrews Society
Next meeting of the History Club is February 4, 2012. Speaker is Tom Campbell author of Fighting Slavery in Chicago.