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Joan Kroc, Unconventional Philanthropist

Published: 10/12/2013
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Joan Kroc (AP Photo / Lenny Ignelzi)

A chance conversation with a doctor on a plane ride resulted in an $18.5 million donation to build a hospice. A speech denouncing war led to a $6 million grant for an institute to study peace. An article about flood victims in the Midwest prompted a $15 million donation for rebuilding.

Joan Kroc, billionaire widow of McDonald's owner Ray Kroc, was an unconventional philanthropist. She sought no fanfare or recognition for her generosity, giving her gifts quietly and surprising dozens of charities with donations big and small.

Kroc gave away millions during her lifetime. And after her death on Oct. 12, 2003 at age 75, she left more than a billion more to other causes near and dear to her: $1.6 billion to the Salvation Army, $225 million to National Public Radio, $50 million here, $20 million there.

"Her financial largess encompassed education, health care, AIDS and cancer research, youth programs, the arts, aid for residents of the flood-ravaged Midwest, famine relief in Africa, the San Diego Zoo, and, in recent years, the pursuit of peace and nuclear nonproliferation," the Los Angeles Times wrote in her obituary. "The extent of her philanthropy may never be fully known because of her passion for anonymity."

Nicknamed St. Joan of the Arches by friends, one friend told the newspaper that Kroc "radiated joy." Adrienne Finley worked closely with Kroc during the construction of the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Center in San Diego. She often tells people that Kroc "had the grace of a ballerina, so poised, with perfect posture."

"She was so beautiful and had so much life and so much fun," said Finley, now director of development for the Sierra del Mar division of the Salvation Army. "We never would have suspected that she wasn't going to be around forever."

Kroc donated $40 million for construction of the San Diego center and another $40 million to set up an endowment. The center, which opened in 2002, has multiple pools, gym, a childcare center, a skating rink, a theater, and even a skateboard park.

"She watched us build it and she enjoyed every minute of it," Finley said. "She made a lot of folks' lives better."

There are now 27 Kroc centers around the country, including one in Puerto Rico, and more are planned. All are financed with Kroc's posthumous gift.

"I hope we're being good stewards of her generosity. I hope we make her proud," Finley said.

Born in 1929, Kroc was the daughter of a railway worker. "Humble" is a word often used to describe her upbringing. Her mother was a violinist and music lover who always made sure there was money for Kroc's piano lessons. At age 15, Kroc was "making a living teaching piano to a class of 38 students," the website learningtogive.org reports.

"She prided herself on being a Midwest girl," Finley said.

Kroc became a music teacher and met Ray Kroc in 1957 while playing organ at a St. Paul supper club. (Kroc was also a talented pianist.) Both were married at the time, but there was a spark. Ray Kroc, who had opened his first McDonald's two years earlier, later wrote in his autobiography, "I was stunned by her blond beauty."

Twelve years later, Ray and Joan reconnected and married. It was his third marriage, her second. In a 1975 People magazine article, Kroc talked about spending $10 million to buy the Padres, a move that had initially confused his wife who reportedly said, "What's that, a monastery?" The article also shares a personal anecdote:

"When Joan Kroc came home a couple of weeks ago and told her husband that shots for the Krocs' two dogs had cost her $23 at the veterinarian, he smiled and said, ‘You've got an expensive hobby.’ Mrs. Kroc eyed the Padres' team picture on her husband's desk, smiled in return and said, "So do you."

Ray, too, generously shared his wealth. He started the Kroc Foundation, which supported research on diabetes, arthritis and multiple sclerosis. He urged his franchisees to get involved in their communities. Perhaps his best known charitable enterprise is the Ronald McDonald Houses, which house families for free while their children receive medical treatment.

After Ray's death in 1984, Joan engaged in "a seemingly whimsical redistribution of treasure," a 2004 Washington Post article noted.

But it's important to note that, for her largest gifts, Kroc did careful research. The Salvation Army was an organization she learned about growing up, according to kroccenter.org. A Roman Catholic, she appreciated the Army's religious element. And when Joan Kroc's elderly mother was in a Minneapolis care facility, she told her daughter about the kind Salvation Army worker who visited her often.

Ray, too, was a supporter of the Salvation Army. As kroccenter.org notes, "During the 1950s and ’60s, Ray volunteered as a bell-ringer and used to deliver hot coffee and hamburgers from his Golden Arches restaurant to bell-ringers along Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago."

Joan Kroc, Finley said, "was never happier than when she was helping charities and universities and other places do their good work." She once joked to Finley that the more McDonald's stock she gave away, the higher the price rose. "The more I give, the more fortunate I feel," the website www.betterworld.net credited Kroc as saying.

She also urged others to give generously and often. When granddaughter Amanda Latimer turned 21, Kroc sent her a letter. In part, it reads, "I want you to believe that a life of service is a happy one to lead. … Serve others joyously and your reward will be great; carry with you the message of charity and brotherly love.”

Some Kroc stories:

After hearing the University of Notre Dame president speak against nuclear war in 1987, she gave the school $6 million to start a peace studies program. She later helped start a similar institute at the University of San Diego.

After a sick hummingbird that flew into her yard was nursed back to health at the San Diego Zoo, Kroc donated $100,000 to the zoo's hummingbird enclosure. Later, she gave a $3.3 million gift for another zoo exhibit.

In 1997, following floods in Grand Rapids, ND and East Grand Forks, Minn. Kroc offered $2,000 to each affected household. She was inspired, she said, by seeing the Grand Forks mayor on television wearing jeans two sizes too small. She also contributed $15 million to the rebuilding effort, shunning the towns' efforts to honor her.

En route from San Diego to the Midwest, Kroc sat next to a doctor and the two chatted for the entire flight. Kroc then gave that doctor $18.5 million to fulfill her dream of starting a hospice in the city . Once it was built, she stopped by unannounced, bringing flowers to patients.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

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