Back in the early 1900s young women were limited in their opportunities. If they were born into families of wealth and standing, they made their debuts, married well, had children and tended to the family’s prominence within the community. If they were what-would-eventually-be-called “middle class,” they would attend school and/or get a job until they married a respectable fellow, had children and tended the household. For those who weren’t married by their 20s, they were deemed old maids with a rather drab future.
In 1912 Margaret Milam was born to Grace and Lynn Milam. He was a Dallas attorney and the family was well off. Young Margaret attended the schools of the relatively new town of Highland Park, Sweet Briar College and the University of Texas at Austin. But unlike other young women of that day, Margaret did not pursue a degree in teaching or home economics. Instead, she studied journalism. This bold choice was rather remarkable at this time, since newsrooms were literally manned by men. But there was a niche for a young woman in such a male-dominated environment. It was covering society. So, the 20-something Margaret took on the role of society editor at the Dallas Times Herald and then The Dallas Morning News in 1936.
Despite the Great Depression (1929-1939) and the beginning of World War II (1939-1945), debutantes and brides received more coverage than today’s Dallas Cowboys. Margaret Milam’s byline was published with everything from teas to weddings. So the story goes that in 1941, a mother called to complain about the coverage of her daughter’s wedding. After Margaret patiently listened to the mother’s grousings, she hung up and contacted her travel agent, asking where her couple of hundred of dollars in savings could take her. The agent said a cruise to South America. Margaret was said to have signed up for the trip and left her job at The News.
Was it a true story? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But it sounded like something that the 29-year-old Margaret might have done.
Eventually she did leave Dallas and started working at the Associated Press in San Francisco, where the city was heady with soldiers shipping off for war. She found herself going to work for the Red Cross reporting in Asia, Europe and India. Following the war, she lived in Germany and Japan as the two countries recovered from the ravages of war until the 1950s, when she returned to Dallas. It was there, in 1952, that she married Eugene McDermott, who had been one of the founders of Texas Instruments. Soon they added daughter Mary McDermott (Cook) to their family.
Thanks to Eugene’s financial success, Margaret was able to be part of a world that she had been exposed to during her days covering society. But the wealth also provided a place at the table for elevating the city of Dallas in the fields of education, healthcare, the environment and the arts. And to that place, the couple brought decades of experience and knowledge to influence the direction of the city. The list of their philanthropic endeavors was and continues to be daunting — the University of Texas at Dallas, UT Southwestern, the Dallas Arboretum, The Hockaday School, St. Mark’s School of Texas, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Dallas Symphony, the Dallas Opera and the Dallas Public Library, to name a few.
When Eugene died in 1973, Margaret carried on the couple’s philanthropic endeavors and influence. When Margaret spoke, decision makers listened no matter how great or small the subject. For example, when The Dallas Morning News had “High Profile,” front-paging the city’s ultimate types, the late Ralph Rogers was approached to be profiled. When he sought Margaret’s advice, she advised him to take a pass, which he did. Years later Ralph agreed to do such a profile, but only on the condition that it would help a nonprofit that he supported.
Though confined to a wheelchair in recent years, Margaret continued making the rounds of her various projects and turning more and more responsibility for the McDermott philanthropy over to Mary. Clad usually in white, Margaret always had a twinkle in her eye and a smile, as if to say there were stories that she knew but would not tell. When asked why she hadn’t written a book, she claimed that she had, but it would not be shared until after her death.
This morning, Margaret’s 106-year life journey ended. She would probably be embarrassed by all the hullabaloo made over her. But perhaps, just this once, she will allow the well-deserved fanfare and feel at ease knowing that Mary and her granddaughter Grace Cook would continue the McDermott legacy with graciousness, intelligence and generosity.