Press Articles - Widow of McDonald's founder named as anonymous donor to flood victims

By Wayne Wangstad

Tribune (USA); 20th May 1997

The Angel with deep pockets who gave $15 million to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks flood victims hails from West St. Paul and has been giving big to charitable causes for more than 20 years.

That Joan Kroc, widow and third wife of McDonalds Corp. founder Ray Kroc, reportedly is the anonymous donor should come as no surprise because she has doled out well over $125 million to various organizations, often spontaneously.

Her wealth is estimated at $1.7 billion, which means she ranks among the wealthiest people in the world.

But Kroc is not your average billionaire: She was kicked out of a Humboldt High School music class in St. Paul for playing boogie woogie when she should have been listening to a symphony.

When she lived on West St. Paul's Imperial Drive she was an aspiring speed skater until she finished last in the St. Paul Winter Carnival Races on Lake Como.

And she once played piano and organ, skills she acquired in high school, at the well-known Criterion Restaurant on University Ave. until 1978, when it was destroyed by fire. It was at the Criterion that she met Kroc.

For some time there has been speculation in Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and elsewhere that the Angel was indeed Kroc or talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey.

It took two Grand Forks Herald reporters to unmask Kroc as the flood victims' benefactor.

The revelation did not sit well in Grand Forks when it was published Monday because Kroc had sought anonymity and authorities were determined to abide by the request.

All the reporters did was check Grand Forks International Airport records. They determined Kroc's Gulfstream IV jet was at the airport on Saturday and her credit card was used to purchase fuel. Next, they checked with some elected officials and determined Kroc was given a tour of the flood-devastated cities.

North Dakota Gov. Ed Shafer declined to comment, as did several officials in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. A source the Grand Forks Herald quoted as confirming Kroc as the benefactor, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., denied Monday that he had confirmed her name.

Jim Durkin, Grand Forks Herald managing editor, said when reporters sought confirmation from people who knew the Angel's identity, "virtually none of them denied it was her (Kroc). That's not to say they confirmed it, but but no one said, `you are wrong.'" When a Pioneer Press reporter called KCNN Radio in Grand Forks, his request for reaction to Kroc's disclosure was unknowingly put on the air, and announcer Jim Bollman declared: "We are not mentioning that name on the air...we made a pledge to not have that name on the air. We are sorry that you as a reporter had to do that...we are taking you off the air." Kevin Dean, KCNN news director, who was less abrupt, explained: "Reaction here has been negative to identifying her. Most people who call and talk to us are displeased that the Grand Forks Herald has put this name with the angel. We have had numerous calls about the issue, and every mention sparks a new flurry of calls." Durkin replied, "I understand there were a fair number of people who were unhappy with us, but I don't know if that reflects the community as a whole. I can say of the calls we received, there were as many in support as there were against what we had done. I question how she expected to maintain her anonimity when she came here." It was at the Criterion in the 1950s that she met Ray Kroc, a milk-shake salesman from Chicago. At the time, both were married. A year earlier, Ray Kroc had purchased a drive-in started by brothers Mac and Dick McDonald. In 1969, Ray and Joan were married. He died in January 1984.

Kroc could not be contacted Monday, but her philanthropic activities date at least to 1976, when she founded Operation Cork to promote awareness of chemical dependency and its impact on families.

In 1983, the Joan B. Kroc Foundation was formed to expand on Operation Cork programs. Another foundation, Our Children Fund, was established to study relationships between chemical dependency and family violence and child abuse.

During an interview several years ago about Operation Cork, Kroc said she and her husband consumed alcohol and served it in their San Diego home, but that neither had ever had a problem with the substance.

"I don't think you have to have been there to care," she told a Pioneer Press reporter, a comment that has been her apparent motto through her years of philanthropy, and is evident in her contribution to flood victims.

When she was in the Twin Cities in 1984, Kroc announced a $6.9 million donation for a sports facility at the Hazelden Foundation in Center City. The gift would help study addiction and chemical dependency among athletes.

Kroc has given $12 million to Notre Dame University, $10 million to build a hospice in San Diego, $5 million for AIDS research, $3 million for San Diego's homeless, more than $3 million to the San Diego Zoo, $3 million to a scholarship program and $1 million to the Democratic National Committee. One of her largest, if not the largest gifts, came in 1995 when she contributed $50 million to Ronald McDonald Children's Charities in memory of her husband. It was the largest single gift the RMCC had received.

The organization operates 166 Ronald McDonald Houses around the world, and Kroc at the time said it "has brought light to children who seek hope, encouraged scientists to search for cures and provided a haven for parents whose children are undergoing treatment far from home." Last year alone she gave away $33 million.

The $15 million Kroc donated for Grand Forks and East Grand Forks was not enough to cover the original intent of giving $2,000 to those who were in mandatory evacuation areas and had major needs. As of May 8, more than 11,000 households had applied, and residents of some areas that had mandatory evacuation had not had a chance to apply.

A second anonymous donor contributed $5 million, to be given in $1,000 allotments, but still not all who applied will receive money.

Kroc still travels to the Twin Cities to visit her sister, who lives in Mendota, and several friends. But she keeps a low profile while here.

This report includes information from the Associated Press.

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