Joan of Arches

By David Moye

Joan Kroc might have been happy to stay in the shadows of her husband, McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, especially when it fell to her to run the San Diego Padres after his death in 1984.

But San Diego, and, by extension, the world, is better for the things she did in the 19 years she spent on Earth before joining him at those Golden Arches in the sky in 2003.

“She was beautiful, smart and funny,” says Adrian Finley, a Salvation Army official who got to know Kroc when she created the proposal for what became the Salvation Army Kroc Center in East San Diego, the first of what will eventually be 25 centers nationwide.

“The Center started because she was riding through town and wanted to do something big for the kids, give them the same access to athletics, art and dance that she had when she was growing up,” Finley says.

Kroc donated nearly $90 million to build and fund the center, which opened in 2002.

“She called my boss, Lt. Col. Dan Stather, and told him what she wanted. He looked like he’d seen a ghost,” Finley says. “She wanted to add an ice arena, which wouldn’t have been part of the original proposal, but she felt that she learned poise from ice skating and wanted other kids to have that same opportunity. It turned out to be one of our most successful programs.”

Kroc was born Joan Mansfield in St. Paul, Minn., in 1927, and quickly developed a love for music. In fact, she was playing piano in a St. Paul bar in 1957 when she met Kroc, whom she married in 1969 after divorcing her first husband.

The two had a happy marriage until his death in 1984, which, sadly, came before he had a chance to see the Padres in their first World Series.

Philanthropy was of interest to Kroc since 1974, when she started Operation Cork (in La Jolla) to teach doctors and nurses about the dangers of alcoholism. But to some, her anti-drug advocacy was over-reaching. Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage, for example, took umbrage when she banned beer from the Padres locker room after games.

“She is poisoning the world with her hamburgers, and we can’t even get a lousy beer,” he said at the time.

Kroc sold the team in 1990 and focused on philanthropic efforts such as the Kroc Center and the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at University of San Diego, which offers a Master’s Degree to students who want to learn how to solve international conflicts without resorting to war (nuclear disarmament was a pet cause of hers).

Kroc’s philanthropy also benefitted KPBS and National Public Radio, and the $1.6 billion donation to the Salvation Army upon her death (to set up Kroc Centers all over the U.S.) is the largest one-time gift ever recorded.

However, the greatest gift Finley ever received from Kroc was something more personal.

“When the Center opened in June, 2002, the theatre wasn’t completed,” she says. “The opening was held off until March 15 the next year, and she had Tony Bennett play. The two of them were acquaintances, and before the concert, he asked her, ‘Would you play for me?’

“They worked out a version of ‘Our Love Is Here To Stay’ - in private, it was a secret - and then, during the show, he said he wanted to give the band a break, and she came out and performed with him.

“Sometimes, the best experiences are the ones you don’t expect.”