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Sunday, December 21 2014 @ 06:54 PM EST

Cirilo McSween 1926-2008

Expat Tales By Trevor Jensen | Tribune reporter - Cirilo McSween came to the United States from Panama to run track at the University of Illinois and went on to become a business and civil rights leader who was one of the first African-Americans to take a seat at the insurance industry's elite "Million Dollar Round Table." Mr. McSween, 82, died of multiple myeloma on Wednesday, Nov. 5, in a hospital in Little Rock, Ark., where he had gone for treatment, said his daughter Veronica. He lived in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. Born in Panama City, where his father was in the import-export business and his mother made dresses, Mr. McSween was a young track star on the national team before coming north to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There he was a Big Ten champion in the 440-yard dash in the early 1950s and received a bachelor's degree in business. (more)

Editor's Comment: Panama's President Martin Torrijos lived with the McSween family in Chicago after graduating from Texas A&M. He worked as a manager of one of Cirilo McSween's McDonald's restaurants. In investigating a series of land fraud allegations in Bocas del Toro, I had the distinct honor of having spoken to Mr. McSween on the phone about a year ago. It became immediately apparent that those who were defrauding illiterate Indians on those islands were unscrupulous lawyers and corrupt local government officials who were doing these things in his name and without his knowledge. As far as I know, the Panamanian government has not done anything about what was going on up there. In any case, Cirilo McSween was a true gentleman and one of Panama's most successful "expats" in the United States. My personal condolences to his family and friends.

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He settled in Chicago and broke into the insurance business with New York Life, no easy task for an African-American at the time. From an office on East 35th Street in Bronzeville, he doggedly built a clientele of policy-holders by going door to door throughout the black South Side.

By the late 1950s, he was selling more than $1 million in new insurance a year, qualifying him for the industry's "Million Dollar Round Table," a measure of a salesman's success at the time.

Branching out from insurance, he joined the board of the black-owned Independence Bank in Chicago. In 1979, Mr. McSween became the first black business owner on the then new State Street Mall when he opened a McDonald's at 230 S. State St.

The restaurant remained his base of operations as he assembled a chain of 11 stores, often in partnerships. He operated five McDonald's franchises, including outlets at O'Hare International Airport, at the time of his death, a spokeswoman said.

As his career took off, he became involved with the civil rights movement, serving on the board and as treasurer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and as a founding board member of Operation Breadbasket. A confidant of Rev. Jesse Jackson's, he was a vice chairman of Operation Push.

He was also close to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and was a pallbearer at King's 1968 funeral, his family said.

At ease in both neighborhood bars and corporate boardrooms, Mr. McSween often did business from a table at his State Street McDonald's.

Because of his achievements, New York Life started a scholarship program, in cooperation with Operation Push, for full-time college students who show a commitment to their studies and their communities.

Mr. McSween's first wife, Gwendolyn, died in 2002. He is survived by his wife, Arlene; another daughter, Esperanza Powell; a son, Cirilo Jr.; a sister, Anna Phillips; and two grandsons.

Services are being arranged.

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