Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Zenith Corporation - Founded by Eugene F. McDonald

 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.



    1. Thanks for the correction. How and why did you find this post?

  2. Eugene (Commander) had a summer home in Macgregor Bay close to Manitoulin Island Ontario Canada. My grandparents took care ofthis home for years for him and the kids. My grandfather really missed Stormy after his death and the mystery around it. Just a FYI thought you would find it interesting

    1. Very interesting!! My grandparents worked up at Commander's summer home in McGregor Bay and looked after Marianne and Stormy when they came. My Grandfather also cleaned Commander's yacht "Mizpah" when he sailed it from Chicago.


  4. My father worked for Commander McDonald on the McDonald-Massee archaeology dig at Isle Royale in 1928. I would love to connect with and McDonald descendants to pass on information about that project.

    1. Jean, I don't know about any descendants but I am sure there are some somewhere. Hope they might be searching the Internet someday and respond. Would you share the information with our History Club? We could make it part of the museum and library so it would be available in case someone appears later, Please respond. or 630-629-4516.

  5. Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery, Hillside, Cook County, Illinois:

  6. Gentle People,

    In connection with a book that I am writing about some of the decisions made by the Allies in 1943, I am looking for the papers of CDR Eugene F. McDonald, Jr. CDR McDonald recommended, helped to organize, and host a fishing trip to McGregor Bay, Ontario, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, August 1-7, 1943. This trip preceded by less than three weeks the first Quebec Conference between Roosevelt and Churchill. I already have viewed all of the papers at the FDR Library in Hyde Park, NY. There are gaps. I know that CDR McDonald wrote to some participants in the fishing trip afterward.

    Thank you,

    Philip Padgett,
    Kensington, MD