- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Often, no one knew where the money had come from. Only later did recipients discover they had joined a long list of people whose lives were

transformed by an unlikely angel, a chain-smoking heiress with elegant clothes and fabulous jewels and passionate opinions about war and peace.

That is how Joan B. Kroc is remembered. Entrusted with a fortune after her husband, McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, died in 1984, she forged a legacy as one of the nation’s great philanthropists. And one of the most private.

She shunned publicity, rarely gave interviews and only occasionally permitted her name to be used for projects she sponsored. She died in October from brain cancer.

In January, the Salvation Army announced it had received $1.5 billion from Mrs. Kroc’s estate, the largest donation in its history.

Mrs. Kroc’s life reads like a Cinderella story: pretty Midwest music teacher, daughter of a railroad worker, who married a hamburger millionaire and spent the 20 years after his death donating his millions to causes — often in direct contrast to some of the conservative ones he had championed.

“Angel of Grand Forks” she was dubbed in 1997 when she secretly swooped into North Dakota in her private jet and gave $15 million to flood victims in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks — $2,000 to every stricken family. Typically, she requested that officials use the minimum of red tape and not reveal her name, although it eventually leaked out.

Her friend, former San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor, referred to Mrs. Kroc as “St. Joan of Arches.”

She threw her heart into all sorts of causes, big and small, from the sprawling, $87 million world-class recreation center she built for underprivileged children in a once-dilapidated part of San Diego, to the three-legged stray dog named Bergy that she adopted and took back to her Rancho Santa Fe mansion, where he settled with her King Charles spaniels.

“The things I believe in, I’ll spend money on,” she once said. And that was about all she ever said about her money. She never talked about it, and she never gave to those who solicited.

Her causes were wide-ranging. When she heard a radio piece about the St. Vincent de Paul homeless center in San Diego, she drove directly over and handed its president a check for $800,000.

She set up peace centers at the University of San Diego and the University of Notre Dame, and left each $50 million in her will.

Three years ago, when a dying patient wrote to thank her for the magnificent hospice she had built on a Mission Valley bluff top, Mrs. Kroc called the patient’s wife and invited her to lunch.

“Here was this funny, lively, impeccably dressed woman who just came into my life at the most awful time and took an interest in me,” said Stephanie Bergsma, associate general manager of San Diego’s KPBS radio station. “And she just totally changed it.”

Mrs. Bergsma had known Mrs. Kroc as the gracious benefactor she met occasionally at public-radio fund-raisers. After the death of Mrs. Bergsma’s husband, the two women became friends.

The friendship led to other connections, notably to a meeting with NPR President Kevin Klose. That led to discussions about NPR’s mission, to a 2002 Christmas donation of $500,000 — and, recently, to an astounding bequest of more than $200 million, more than double the network’s annual budget.

“She just wanted to make a difference in the biggest possible way,” Mrs. Bergsma said.

Mrs. Kroc was born Joan Beverly Mansfield in St. Paul, Minn., in 1928. Her father was a railroad telegrapher and her mother a violinist. She started teaching music at age 15.

Ray Kroc met his wife-to-be at the Clarion restaurant in St. Paul in 1957, where she was playing the organ and he was working on a deal. He was a 53-year-old salesman who had just founded McDonald’s after buying a small hamburger restaurant two years earlier. She was 28. Both were married. Twelve years later, after she divorced once and he divorced twice, they married.

For most of their marriage, Joan Kroc remained in her husband’s shadow. But she clearly enjoyed the trappings of wealth — the fabulous home on the hill, the yacht, the private helicopter, even the baseball team, the San Diego Padres, which she inherited when Ray Kroc died. She sold the team in 1990.

Joan Kroc’s first involvement in the kind of huge donations that became her hallmark came the summer after her husband’s death, when a gunman killed 21 persons in a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, Calif., in July 1984. She immediately flew to San Ysidro and established a $100,000 fund for the victims’ families.

The same year, she discovered the peace movement.

Encouraged by her daughter from her first marriage, Mrs. Kroc attended a nuclear-disarmament conference in Washington. Within eight months she had spent more than $1 million on anti-nuclear ads in more than 100 newspapers, and another $1 million to distribute copies of the book “Missile Envy” by disarmament activist Helen Caldicott.

She said her activism came from a growing concern about the arms race, and a conviction that a nuclear holocaust might occur before her grandchildren grew up.

Her views — and the fact she used her inheritance to promote them — horrified some political friends of her husband, who had been a major contributor to Republican candidates and causes and a supporter of the Vietnam War. They also earned her the wrath of conservative commentators.

“The Pentagon doesn’t make McNuggets and Joan Kroc ought not to be trying to make policy on nuclear weapons,” wrote Cal Thomas, the syndicated columnist.

In 1987, she gave the Democratic Party $1 million, saying she was concerned about the buildup of weapons and about “losing sight of our goals as a nation.”

She never gave that much to politics again. In fact, friends said, she was dismayed at what she considered the timid response of Democrats in opposition to the war in Iraq. According to her friend, Joyce Neu, she even phoned some top Democrats to give them a piece of her mind.

“She had the access, so she used it,” said Miss Neu, executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego. “She thought they ought to be stronger, and she had no qualms about telling them.”

A few weeks before her death, Mrs. Kroc was wheeled into the 12-acre Salvation Army community center in San Diego — one of the few projects that bears her name.

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