In 1962, Richard H. McCooey (C ’52) established two properties on 36th Street, with the aim of giving back to his beloved university. His brainchildren — The Tombs, 1789, and later, F. Scott’s — would prove to have an outsized, indelible effect on Georgetown.
McCooey died Aug. 6 in Greenwich, Conn., at the age of 83, from complications stemming from cancer and cardiac arrest.
McCooey lived nearly his entire adult life in Georgetown, moving to Greenwich following a stroke nine months ago.
McCooey was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1930, to a politically entrenched family. At Georgetown, he served as president of the Yard, the forerunner to the Georgetown University Student Association, before graduating with degrees in history and government.
“There were some things he was just really personally very committed to; number one, he loved the university, and the reason he built 1789 and The Tombs was he wanted to give something back to the university,” Clyde’s Restaurant Group CEO and Co-Owner John Laytham said.
Laytham attended the School of Foreign Service from 1962 to 1964, bearing witness to the profound change to campus social life that accompanied the foundation of the The Tombs, which moved revelry closer to campus, from M Street.
“It was just a wonderful place to go to, and you didn’t have to go to another place far away,” he said. “There was always an extremely interesting mix of teachers and students, and today you’ll see all kinds of people in The Tombs.”
McCooey sold his trio of properties in 1985 for $3 million, entrusting the management to Clyde’s Restaurant Group, with whose leadership he had a longstanding relationship. He founded restaurant design company Persona Studios the following year, and would continue to design and consult for his former restaurants, as well as others in the Clyde’s portfolio, along with his wife Karen, whom he married in 1990.
1789 and The Tombs, which share a renovated federal-style house that had previously hosted two businesses, have evolved to provide a fine-dining experience catered to the elite and a casual service and bar catered to the university, respectively. The early years saw a different atmosphere — the bulletin board guarding the staircase to The Tombs formerly served as a take-out window to the now posh 1789.
McCooey had participated in the Air Force ROTC program while at Georgetown, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. He gave up a career in advertising for the chance to manage the properties on 36th and Prospect. His dedication was described in a 1968 feature on McCooey in The Hoya: “Mr. McCooey eats and sleeps 1789. He eats his meals there, and he sleeps in a room outside his office, and he had better, since he draws no salary. To put it simply, McCooey is so totally dedicated to Georgetown, making his own contribution in his own inimitable way, that most anyone would call him a fool. … But after all, it takes a fool, careless of his own welfare, to accomplish the things for which everyone is eventually grateful.”
The decor of each of McCooey’s properties was of utmost importance to their respective characters, from the upscale, classic 1789 to the rowing-themed Tombs.
McCooey complemented his aesthetic genius with a sense for atmosphere. In 1964, he established the enduring tradition of Chimes Nights, inspired by the Whiffenpoofs’ weekly performances at Yale local establishment Morey’s.
“I’m not sure there’s any Chime that doesn’t know how important Richard was to the group and how much he meant to all of us who knew him well and for what he did for the group for many years after we graduated,” said John Broughan (CAS ’64), the president of the a cappella group at the time. “Everyone feels he’s as much of a Chime as any one of us is. He actually came to our reunions, he would come to the reunions. For all intents and purposes, he was one of us, and always will be.”
Broughan and McCooey were introduced by a mutual friend, and then worked to develop an arrangement that would capture both the spirit of the Georgetown Chimes and McCooey’s restaurants. The initial concerts were held on Friday afternoons in the upstairs pub of 1789; they soon moved downstairs to The Tombs on Wednesday nights — a shift that would raise the profile of both the group and the restaurant, which were highlighted in The Washington Post.
“The relationship and bonding became so strong that any time Richard had VIP guests in the dining room, he would quickly call us to sing, people like the Speaker of the House,” Broughan said. “Inevitably, after the restaurant would close, we would just sit and talk with him.”
The terms of the 1985 sale included a guaranteed table at his old properties, and McCooey would often frequent Chimes Nights, forming relationships with multiple generations. Broughan had organized a group of Chimes alumni from the New England area to sing to him in Greenwich that was scheduled for the day he died.
In 1966, McCooey received the John Carroll Award, dedicated to alumni who best exemplify the ideals of the university and its founder.
“Dick was an extraordinary man and he will be greatly missed as a dear friend to many members of our community. We are deeply grateful for his longstanding dedication to Georgetown and for all he did to establish both The Tombs and 1789 as such special, meaningful places for our students, alumni and friends,” University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) said in a statement to The Hoya.
Chimes alumnus Kevin O’Brien (CAS ’65) said that McCooey’s contributions to the university are unparalleled.
“I would tell him that he did more for Georgetown than the 1984 National Championship. He would smile and say, ‘I never quite got over my days on campus.’ He was truly a phenomenally kind, generous man, perhaps the most important Hoya of all,” he wrote in an email. “Is there room at Healy Circle for another statue?”
McCooey is survived by his wife. A memorial service will be held at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown on Sept. 5. Perhaps the best summary of McCooey comes from his own words, in a 2009 video for the university’s Witness to History project.
“We opened in 1962 and I discovered I wasn’t really the best person to run things. I could think them up, could idealize. It was the same back when I was president; I could become president of the student body, but I perhaps wasn’t the best president. But I ran those places for some 20-odd years … and it was unique in the sense that there was nothing else like it,” he said. “And although lots of people wanted me to do it in their universities and things like that, I was just dedicated to Georgetown. I just wanted to do it for Georgetown.”