Down through history there have been many admirable women who have served the interests of their communities and the world, and they often fall into two categories. There are those who take a hands-on approach in their service of others, but there are also those who provide the funds that let them do so. And of course both are vital. And the financial backers even have a special name–we might call them philanthropists.
It’s a word that comes from the Greek and might be translated as “man-loving” – or as we’d say “people loving.” And it’s a word that certainly described Nancy (Nettie) Fowler McCormick, a long term wealthy resident of Chicago whose record of philanthropy benefited her community and even beyond. And all because she used her fortune to make her world a better place.
Nancy Fowler—who came to be known as “Nettie”—was born in upstate New York in February, 1835, her father a merchant who was killed in an accident when she was an infant. Her mother then died when Nettie was seven and she and her brother went to live with their grandmother and uncle. Nettie was thought to be a serious child, perhaps inevitable with her parents’ deaths, and she was seriously inspired by her devoutly Methodist family who encouraged an attitude for generosity.
With this background, Nettie came to believe that God wanted her to be a steward for the resources He had given her during her life. In fact she wrote one time in her diary: “Usefulness is the great thing in life–to do something for others leaves a sweeter odor than a life of pleasure.”
With family support Nettie attended several schools, among them Emma Willard’s Troy, New York “Female Seminary” as well as the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, New York. As a student at the last facility she was active in the school’s missionary society.
Then in January 1856 Nettie traveled to Chicago to visit friends and while there she met inventor and businessman (and active Presbyterian) Cyrus Hall McCormick. Then they began a relationship that became increasingly serious. Theirs was a first marriage for each, and though Nettie was some years younger, they were a devoted couple. As he proposed McCormick told her: ”I do not think there is a man in the world who would strive more to please you than I should do—no one whose disposition and manner would be more under your control and influence than mine as your husband.”
As they married in January, 1858 one connection was that they shared a common desire. As one source put it: “Cyrus and Nettie never believed that their own personal happiness was the primary goal of life. They wanted to honor God and serve others.” And because of this they were anxious to let God guide them into how and where to donate.
Sadly, though they had a large family, several of their children either died young or were seriously disabled. Also, for part of her life, Nettie became hearing impaired and needed the hearing aid of the period—a “hearing trumpet” that she could use to amplify voices. But despite these tragedies, Nettie had a wise sense of business and became her husband’s chief financial advisor.
Cyrus McCormick was the inventor and manufacturer of the reaping machine used by farmers throughout the Midwest, and he and his family lived a comfortable and prosperous life there in Chicago in a comfortable home. Then came in October, 1871 when the Great Chicago Fire—city-wide conflagration—devastated much of the city, including the McCormick home and factory. Despite the loss they could have retired and lived elsewhere in comfort and luxury, but their sense of dedication would not allow them to do it. Also, since Cyrus at the time was considering retirement, he wondered if the fire was an indication that he should do so. However, Nettie would have none of it. “Rebuild,” she said, “I do not wish our sons to grow up in idleness.” So they did.
Their new home was in a wealthy Chicago area that informally became known as “McCormickville” but they also realized that the fire had destroyed the homes of many of their neighbors and they were in want. Previously these poorer citizens of Chicago had often depended on the prosperous and this was still the case. The McCormick’s stepped forward to fill the need.
As part of her financial assistance, Nettie was particularly interested in the work of local missions that provided spiritual as well as physical aid. She supported numerous area projects such as the Pacific Garden Mission and assisted in the ministry of evangelist Dwight L. Moody, particularly with the Moody Bible Institute. In fact both facilities are in operation today.
However, Cyrus did not live to see some of what his funds provided because he died in 1884, leaving a very wealthy but naturally grieving widow. And she was ready to continue—and even increase—her philanthropy.
“Yes, money is power,” Nettie later said, “But I have always tried not to trust in it, but rather use it for the glory of my Master.”
However, as son Cyrus Jr. assumed control of the factory, and as she grieved her husband Nettie was still involved in many business decisions and details.
In her support for the Moody school, there was one time when her sustaining came at just the right time. It occurred when the school lacked the funds to pay a substantial debt, and Moody, always a believer in God’s provision, prayed for the needed funds. Then when he was preaching he was brought an urgent letter. It was from Nettie who included a large check that helped meet a large part of the debt. She wrote that she had felt she just had to send something and knew it was needed immediately. When the amount she had sent didn’t quite fulfill the debt, she sent another check.
Nettie’s donations were not just local, but actually international, and often came from her travels. With a particular interest in Asia, she funded buildings at Chinese Christian universities, and especially in Korea. On a visit to Egypt she donated to a local missionary school for building dormitories, and her local travels especially in poor areas of the south brought establishment of schools and a orphanage.
In fact, she often put charity ahead of personal choices. Once when in her luxurious home she noticed something. “We need new curtains,” she said, “But I think I would rather spend it for a school.”
When Nettie died in July, 1923 at the age of eighty-eight, her obituary related that she had contributed to six institutions. However, a later check stated that she had actually supported more than 400 religious and educational organizations.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.