Thanks to Joan Kroc, hamburger billions went to charity

Joan Kroc speaks of her late husband, Ray Kroc, and his dedication to the Salvation Army at a ceremony Sept. 23, 1998, in San Diego, where she announced an $80 million gift to build a community center there. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

By Lisa Napoli
Published by Dutton, 353 pages, $27

Next time you encamp at the University of Notre Dame and the jewel of its campus — the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies — don’t bother looking for golden arches, however much they could be there. It was hamburger money, McDonald’s quick-service, cholesterol-food money, that helped create the institute — as it did for a similar operation at the University of San Diego.

Both Catholic schools received $50 million from the bountiful estate of Joan Kroc, who inherited the deep wealth of her husband, Ray, who bought into a small-town roadside hamburger stand run by the two McDonald brothers in the mid-1950s. At his death in 1984, the financial empire of the Chicago-born former traveling salesman had 7,500 cheap-fare eateries in 32 countries. Billowing, the current number is more than 36,000 and was gradually rising to that Everest peak when Joan died in 2003.

The couple had a decidedly mixed marriage. A political conservative and splashy character, Ray supported Richard Nixon. Liberal Joan was a backer of Walter Mondale in his 1984 presidential run. Ray excessively swilled Early Times, a rot-gut whiskey. Joan savored sips of Dom Perignon. Ray, who authored his life story in Grinding It Out, described himself as “hot-tempered, emotional and, on occasion, an outright son of a bitch,” a darkness that once prompted the frightened Joan to get a restraining order to keep him away. She later scotched it and took him back.

Joan’s daughter, Linda Smith, who thought that her spiritually inclined mother was called by God to disperse her $2.7 billion fortune, said: “She searched relentlessly over the years, in her own way, to find faith and trust in Jesus’ unconditional love. She believed in his teachings and example, and in the last months of her life, I honestly believe she was guided by her love for Him to tend the poor and make life better for perhaps countless thousands of people.”

Lisa Napoli, a Hampshire College graduate and journalist with stints at The New York Times and MSNBC lives in Los Angeles. With her book, she offers an insightful and clear-eyed probe into the disparate values of a capricious commercialist and a conscience-driven philanthropist — an unlikely pairing if there ever was one. To get the story, and allowing that the families of both Krocs “were reluctant to speak with me,” Napoli dug into newspaper archives and tracked down confidants or others who interacted with the couple in positive or negative ways. She comes forward with credible conclusions.

Among them is a confession not usually revealed by an author, but one that should be appreciated: “My intention in writing this book, in general, and with this list specifically, is not only to bring attention to Joan’s inventive philanthropy, but to inspire others to give, in whatever ways they can. Naturally, most of us cannot give on the scale of the Krocs. But that shouldn’t stop us from giving in other ways — our money, our time and our compassion.”

The list of which Napoli speaks takes up 10 small-print pages citing Joan’s monetary gifts and recipients — a total of nearly $3 billion awarded to more than 190 organizations, charities, nonprofits, advocacy groups and individuals. It was only after Ray’s 1984 death that Joan’s large-scale giving began. The biggest check of $1.5 billion went to the Salvation Army, followed by $225 million to National Public Radio. For his 85th birthday, Fr. Ted Hesburgh of Notre Dame received $5 million. In keeping with her opposition to American militarism, she generously aided such groups as Beyond War, Peace Links, the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C., and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.

Getting rid of money can induce a wariness. Napoli writes: “Wealth, Joan was finding, came not with strings attached, but with ropes. It attracted sycophants, opportunists, and people who believed having an abundance of cash made life better, solved every problem. The only thing money did, as far as Joan was concerned, was prevent poverty. Having abundant riches simply meant no longer having to look at the right side of the menu in a restaurant. She was, of course, happy not to be poor any longer, but she wished she could disabuse people of the idea that money equaled happiness.”

Speaking of menus, I was holding one across from Joan in a Lo Jolla, California, restaurant in the mid-1980s. Our dinner date included her daughter Linda, with whom I had formed a friendship after writing about her antiwar stands when founding Mothers Embracing Nuclear Disarmament. Linda invited me to stay at her home as well as speak at La Jolla Country Day School, where one of her four daughters was enrolled. As gracious and kind-hearted as Linda, Joan opened her spigot of personal stories that flowed through the dinner and revealed an authenticity that had nothing to do with her wealth and power.

Also at our corner table was actor Mercedes McCambridge, an Oscar winner for her role in “All the King’s Men.” She had suffered alcoholism, but her overcoming of it made her a close ally of Joan, who saw the harmful effects of alcohol on her husband. Napoli devotes a chapter to Joan’s efforts to spark a “social revolution” to fight the disease: “Joan’s trouble wasn’t just that she couldn’t get Ray to accept help. She couldn’t even persuade him that he had a problem. … To Ray, the therapist and addiction specialists she brought around were quacks, not to be trusted.”

Not a quitter, “she was convinced by a friend to attend Al-Anon, the support group for people affected by the drinking of a loved one. Her attendance at meetings changed her life.” Among other moves, besides funding things like the Betty Ford Center, Joan became a crusader against America’s alcohol culture by creating the advocacy group Cork — Kroc spelled backwards.

Her commitment to it would never waver, much as it would not to all the progressive causes she backed. The example she set from the 1970s through 2003 would be followed by Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, Ken Langone and other givers of far greater wealth.

Whether remembered as St. Joan of the Arches or as a publicity-shy citizen who kept the faith and spread the largesse, she was undeniably real.

[Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C.]

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