By Anne Adams
Some people are fully convinced that major corporations – such as McDonalds Restaurants – are more intent on squeezing a profit from a neighborhood than returning anything to the community. Yet this was not the case with Joan Kroc, who used her McDonald’s fortune to benefit innumerable people, including some who may never have visited a McDonald’s restaurant.
Joan Beverly Mansfield was born in August, 1928 in St. Paul, Minnesota, the daughter of a railroad worker and an accomplished violinist. After completing her education at a music school, at age 15 she began teaching piano to more than 35 students, and also playing the piano at a local music store. Then at age 17 Joan married Roland Smith, a returning Navy war veteran, and they had a baby the next year.
Several years later while playing the piano and organ at a local restaurant she caught the eye of McDonald’s entrepreneur Ray Kroc. “I was stunned by her blonde beauty,” he said later.
The couple became close and remained so until 1968 when after both were divorced they married and though Kroc was 26 years her senior, Joan thought him many years younger because he was so active. When Kroc purchased the San Diego Padres baseball team in 1974 they moved to that city.
In the 1950s, Ray Kroc had been a sales representative for a milkshake machine company and as he called on the McDonald brothers’ hamburger restaurant in San Bernardino, California he was impressed by their fast-sale format. With the hope that he could sell as many as eight mixing machines to new restaurants with that format, he partnered with the brothers and began to expand the operation. He bought out the brothers in 1961, and turned McDonalds into the multi-million dollar business it became. He died in January, 1984.
Before his death Joan had already began her philanthropy when she established 1976 through the Kroc Foundation, Operation Cork, to sponsor programs to inform health professionals about issues concerning alcoholism. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Kroc assumed a new role as community minded philanthropist, and she began with the Kroc-owned San Diego Padres. In 1980 she launched what was thought to be the first major league baseball employee aid program assisting drug abusers. Yet according to one report, her generosity was just continuing her husband’s example. “Ray was once asked in an interview why he gave so much of his wealth away,” she said, “He said, ‘I’ve never seen a Brinks truck following a hearse. Have you?’”
Yet Mrs. Kroc’s assistance was often so low-key that recipients were not aware of her identity. In 1997 she anonymously donated millions to North Dakota and Minnesota flood victims. Leaving her own car behind, she toured the area in a van; and later distributed $2000 to victim families, who knew her only as “the angel.” “I’ll tell you, that was really a godsend,” said one woman about the donation, which her family used to buy a trailer where they lived till their home was rebuilt. Only when reporters traced her private plane was Mrs. Kroc identified.
She later provided an unsolicited donation to a San Diego charity that opened a facility to house and assist the homeless. According to the head of the charity, the St. Vincent de Paul Joan Kroc Center was perhaps the first time she ever permitted her name to appear on a building.
Yet though Mrs. Kroc occasionally allowed use of her name for similar projects, she did not seek public attention often because she wanted to attract other donors. “She turned down interview requests with Fortune and Forbes [magazines], but talked to a small community newspaper because she thought it would help The Salvation Army project here,” said a spokesman.
This referred to Mrs. Kroc’s support of The Salvation Army community center in San Diego that opened in 2002. She first contacted the Salvation Army about the center after she toured the neighborhood and saw the need for such a facility. She donated $87 million – considered to be the largest donation in Salvation Army history to create what was known as The Salvation Army’s Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center. It was designed to expose children to arts, educational programs and sports.
Mrs. Kroc died in 2003 and left a remarkable legacy of using her resources to benefit others. Hers was a life summed up by a former Padres ballplayer. “She did things her way, not for the recognition or other considerations but because it was the right thing to do.”
Anne Adams, a freelance writer living in Houston, Texas, is the author of a new e-book “First of All, a Wife: Sketches of American First Ladies,” available fromPCPublications.org. She has published in Christian and secular publications, taught history on the junior college level, and spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”