Retired Brig. Gen. Robert F. McDermott, a former Air Force Academy dean who went on to become chairman of the insurance giant USAA and a leading advocate for auto safety, died Monday. He was 86.
McDermott, who also led a group that owned the San Antonio Spurs for a time in the 1990s, died at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio after suffering a stroke two weeks ago, family spokesman Paul Ringenbach said.
Often called "McD" or "the General," McDermott had been awaiting his fifth pacemaker. Over the years, he had undergone eight coronary bypass operations and 11 angioplasties.
McDermott moved to San Antonio in 1968 when he retired from the Air Force and joined USAA, United Services Automobile Assn., founded in the 1920s as an insurance company for military officers.
As president and chairman, McDermott oversaw the company's growth from 2,600 employees into a multibillion-dollar corporation with more than 16,000 employees that offered a range of financial services to current and former military service members and their families.
During his time at the company, it became the country's fifth-largest insurer of private cars and fourth-largest insurer for homeowners.
Never afraid to speak his mind, McDermott argued that safety measures would reduce insurance costs and advocated the use of air bags years before they became common.
"The Europeans have been more safety-conscious," McDermott said in a 1987 Associated Press interview. "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," he said. In 1987, years before air bags became mandatory, USAA vehicles and McDermott's own Mercedes-Benz were already equipped with them.
McDermott brought other innovations to USAA, offering flexible and four-day workweeks and generous benefits, including subsidized carpools, cafeteria meals and career training, an on-site fitness center and access to professional counselors.
"People spend more waking hours at work than anything else," McDermott said in 1991. "So why not make it not only as pleasant as possible but conducive to good effort and output, high morale, courtesy and pride in what they're doing? We try to treat them the way we want them to treat the customers."
McDermott stepped down as head of USAA in 1993, shortly after leading a group of local investors in purchasing the Spurs pro basketball franchise from Red McCombs for $85 million.
Three years later, McDermott resigned as chairman of the investor group after backing a plan to sell the franchise that other Spurs board members had opposed.
A native of Readville, Mass., McDermott graduated from West Point in 1943.
He became a fighter pilot, flying 61 combat missions, and later served on Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's staff in Europe.
He subsequently received a master's degree from Harvard Business School and taught economics at West Point.
As president, Eisenhower appointed McDermott as dean of the then-new Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., a post he held from 1956 to 1968.
He was credited with helping modernize military education by requiring students to select a major course of study, among other innovations. The academy's main cadet library is named after him.
This year, McDermott returned to academic life, teaching graduate courses in organizational leadership at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
He is survived by his second wife, Marion; five children from his first marriage, which ended when his wife Alice died in 1990; 14 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, Ringenbach said.
Funeral arrangements were pending.