Kroc, Joan Beverly

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Kroc, Joan Beverly

(b. 27 August 1928 in Saint Paul, Minnesota; d. 12 October 2003 in Rancho Santa Fe, California), peace advocate and philanthropist who was the third wife of the McDonald’s Corporation founder Ray Kroc.

Kroc was born Joan Beverly Mansfield, the elder of two daughters of Charles Smart Mansfield, a railroad telegraph operator, and Gladys Bonnebelle Mansfield, a housewife and an accomplished violinist. Although her father was frequently out of work during the Depression, Kroc was still able to take piano lessons and began teaching piano at age fifteen, eventually instructing over thirty-five students. She was also an avid ice-skater and dreamed of becoming a nurse or a veterinarian.

After graduating from Humboldt High School in Saint Paul, Kroc married the navy veteran Rawland F. Smith in 1945 at age seventeen; they had one child. Smith worked as a railroad engineer, and Kroc played piano and organ in local restaurants. While playing at the Criterion Restaurant in Saint Paul in 1957, she met Ray Kroc, who was meeting with the restaurant’s owner, Jim Zien, about starting a McDonald’s franchise. Although married at the time, Ray Kroc later wrote in his autobiography, “I was stunned by her blond beauty.” In 1958 Zien hired Smith to manage his first franchise in Minneapolis. One year later (1959), the Smiths moved to Rapid City, South Dakota, to run a McDonald’s restaurant that they co-owned with Zien.

Ray Kroc frequently spoke to Joan (whom he called “Joni”) by telephone about business matters and was still smitten by her. After divorcing his first wife in 1961, Ray promptly proposed to Joan, who was still married (and was twenty-five years younger). She accepted at first but then changed her mind after consulting with her mother and daughter. While attending a McDonald’s convention in San Diego in late 1968, she met up with Ray once again. They played songs on a piano in his hotel room and talked all night, and he proposed again, even though he had since married his second wife. This time Kroc accepted; they both obtained divorces and were married on 8 March 1969 at Ray’s ranch in Santa Ynez, California.

Ray Kroc battled an alcohol problem for many years, and Joan even filed for divorce in November 1971. However, they reconciled after a one-month separation. The Krocs moved from Chicago to San Diego in 1976, two years after Ray Kroc purchased the San Diego Padres baseball team. When Ray Kroc died in January 1984 at age eighty-one, Joan succeeded him as Padres owner, and the team went to its first World Series later that season, losing to the Detroit Tigers. She sold the team in 1990 for $75 million.

Ray Kroc had established the Kroc Foundation in 1965 to support medical research, and in May 1976 Joan’s first philanthropic endeavor was Operation Cork (“Kroc” spelled backwards), an alcoholism educational program that focused on family members of alcoholics. In 1989 she established what was considered to be the first employee-assistance program in Major League Baseball, for Padres players and staff with drug problems.

When a gunman killed twenty-one people at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California, in July 1984, Kroc donated $100,000 to establish a fund for the victims’ families. Shortly thereafter Kroc attended the National Women’s Conference for the Prevention of Nuclear War in Washington, D.C., and quickly became a peace activist, in 1985 spending $3 million on disarmament issues, which included reprinting the book Missile Envy by Helen Caldicott and running newspaper ads in major newspapers, pushing for disarmament. The conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas called her a “McNut” and wrote, “The Pentagon doesn’t make McNuggets, and Joan Kroc ought not to be trying to make policy on nuclear weapons.” The Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies opened in 1986 at the University of Notre Dame, following her $6 million contribution. While Ray Kroc had been a Republican (and had even donated $250,000 to Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign), Joan Kroc was a registered Independent who supported liberal Democrats, and she gave $1 million to the Democratic National Committee in 1987.

Kroc did not listen to solicitations from fund-raisers, and those who asked for money did not receive it. Like the name of her yacht (Impromptu) implied, she often gave money after reading or hearing a news report, and the recipient often had no idea that a donation was coming until it arrived. When she read about a twelve-year-old boy suffering from hemophilia and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) who was going to lose his private teacher because of budget cuts, she sent $235,000 to balance the Tennessee school district’s budget. On her way to visit her father, who was dying in a Minneapolis hospice, Kroc met a doctor from the San Diego Hospice on an airplane and went on to donate $18.5 million to build its new campus and palliative care center. The Saint Vincent de Paul Joan Kroc Center for the homeless opened in 1987 after her $3 million donation, and she anonymously gave $7 million to build an AIDS wing at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City in the late 1980s.

In 1993 Kroc donated McDonald’s stock worth $60 million to the Ronald McDonald House Charities and two years later donated $50 million to Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities. Her $15 million donation to the victims of the 1997 flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, was anonymous until a local newspaper publicly identified her. Other major gifts were $25 million to the University of San Diego (USD), which opened the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice in 2001, and $87 million to the Salvation Army to build the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Rolando, California, a twelve-acre facility that exposed children to the arts and offered access to educational programs and sports, including a skating rink. While Kroc preferred not to have her name attached to these projects—the Peace Institute at USD was originally to be named for Mohandas Gandhi—the recipients often insisted, hoping to attract new donors.

Kroc died of brain cancer at her home at the age of seventy-five and was buried in El Camino Memorial Park in La Jolla, California. Kroc left a $1.7 billion estate, and among her bequests were over $60 million to Ronald McDonald House Charities, $50 million to the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University, $10 million to the Zoological Society of San Diego, and $200 million to National Public Radio. The largest bequest was $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army for the development of community centers across the United States. Although Kroc was raised a Lutheran, she did not consider herself a member of any organized religion, and her ongoing support for the Salvation Army had more to do with its services and management than with its evangelism.

Kroc was a chain-smoker who eschewed the spotlight, and many of her donations were never publicized. She was dubbed “Saint Joan of the Arches” by the former mayor of San Diego and once summed up her philanthropic philosophy by saying, “The things I believe in, I’ll spend money on.”

Scott Harris, “Dismayed by Nuclear Arms Race: McDonald’s Fortune Fuels Joan Kroc’s Peace Effort,” Los Angeles Times (13 Oct. 1985), provides a profile of Kroc. Useful articles about her philanthropy are Jeff McDonald, “Millions Given Quietly: The Rich Legacy of Joan Kroc, a Very Private Person,” San Diego Union-Tribune (19 Oct. 2003); Tony Perry, “Philanthropy That Was Deeply Personal: Joan Kroc Chose Her Projects Carefully and Strove for Top Quality, Regardless of Cost,” Los Angeles Times (31 Jan. 2004); and David Montgomery, “Billions Served: McDonald’s Heiress Joan Kroc Took Her Philanthropy and Super-Sized It,” Washington Post (14 Mar. 2004). Ray Kroc’s autobiography, Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s (1977), written with Robert Anderson, contains information on his life with Kroc, as does John F. Love, McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, rev. ed. (1995). Obituaries are in the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times (both 13 Oct. 2003).

John A. Drobnicki