Amanuensis Monday: Portrait of a Woman


Benita (McGinnis) McCormick (1889 – 1984)

A local Bay Area feature story from the mid-
1970s depicts Benita (McGinnis) McCormick 
with mementos from her travels.
Clipping courtesy of Suzanne Olson Wieland.

[Note:  Amanuensis is an ancient word meaning one who performs the function of writing down or transcribing the words of another.  Derived from the Latin root manu-  , meaning manual or hand, the word also has been used as a synonym for secretary or scribe.]

A few years ago, my cousin, Suzanne Olson Wieland, sent me a newspaper clipping about her maternal grandmother (and my maternal great-aunt), Benita (McGinnis) McCormick.
The paper was most likely The San Mateo Times, a publication covering peninsula news of the San Francisco Bay Area. Based on the photograph, I would estimate the article was published in the mid-1970s.  

A transcription of the story follows here.  (The story contains one factual error; it refers erroneously to Aunt Detty’s son as “George.” His name was Phillip, and he went by his nickname, “Bud.”


She Grabs An Idea…

Then Just Hangs On

Artist and businesswoman, Benita McCormick, zips through life with vim and vigor.  The secret of her zest is to grab hold of an idea in the same way one would grab hold of the tail of a donkey – then hang on.

It was shortly after her marriage to Phillip McCormick, a railroad executive with the Baltimore-Ohio in Chicago, that Mrs. McCormick began putting her ideas to work.  Prior to that she had been too busy studying art illustration and painting at the Art Institute in Chicago and the galleries in Paris and later, working on the Chicago movie censor board.

Mrs. McCormick’s method is to take a creative idea, hammer and chisel it into the commercial world and produce a going concern.

Shortly after her marriage she got the idea of teaching children to paint to music after seeing the moods created by violinists during the rehearsal of love scenes in Hollywood.

She rented a studio in the Astor Hotel in Milwaukee, where she was then living, and began to teach the children painting to the tunes of the Teddy Bears’ Picnic and the Clock Shop.  Her idea was so successful that the Milwaukee Art Institute copied her idea and installed an electric organ in their institute.

Her painting classes brought an acquaintance with the youngsters’ mothers and out of this grew her interior decorating business which was soon thriving.

The McCormicks returned to Chicago and became involved in raising their twins, Jane and George (sic).  What then could be more natural than for a young mother busy at home to decide to redecorate her dining room?

So Benita set to work.  She stripped the dining room of its five panels of wallpapered hunting dogs and began to paint.  She painted the room in oils showing the different fairytales that would entertain the children.

Article about Benita McCormick
Guests coming to the house were impressed and soon she was doing scenes for other people’s homes. One painting she did for her father, of his favorite fishing haunt, added $500 to the sale of the house.

As the children grew older and became more independent Benita turned her interest towards advertising.  She got the idea of making Christmas cards that showed the different models of cars.  And she soon had more orders than she could handle.  The result was a studio business that ran for three years.

A business enterprise that started during World War II and was to last for 16 years began when Benita dreamed up the idea of a job survey.  Her idea was to call people in their homes and tell them of the job opportunities available to them.  She would then send the prospective employe her card and have them present it to the personnel office that they applied to.

It was a workers market in those years; there were hundreds of jobs available that employers were desperate to fill.  Benita took her idea to the most conservative firm in town and won them over with a contract.

At the end of 16 years of personnel work Benita decided to retire with her husband and “have some fun.”  They made their base in San Mateo and began to travel.

They went to Europe and fell in love with Spain where they stayed one year.  After a year in California they returned to Spain and toured the Near East and the Holy Land as well.

“I’m mad about Spain,” says Mrs. McCormick, “I love the people, they’re so warm and friendly.  I like Barcelona best because it has a lot of life to it.”

It was during her stay in Barcelona that Benita became interested in applying gold leaf to statues.  She found a man in Barcelona who worked in gold leaf and became his student for five hours a day for eight months.

Professor Antonio’s studio was what had once been a stable and later the carriage house of a great mansion.  It had walls one foot thick that were pocked with cannon balls, a false floor and cathedral-high ceiling.

Back in California, Benita applied her newly learned gold-leaf technique to making coats of arms.  She first became interested in shields because she thought “it was a nice thing for people to have pride in their families.”

Like all her ideas, this, too, has become an enterprising project with Benita making coats of arms for families and newly formed businesses.

And the McCormick’s coat of arms is “Without Fear.”

Copyright ©  2015  Linda Huesca Tully

2 Thoughts to “Amanuensis Monday: Portrait of a Woman

  1. Indeed she was, Jacqi – I think you'd have liked her. As I near the end of her story, I'm constantly reminded of vignettes from her life that just beg to be told, like candles that must be lit in the night. Thanks for reading!

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