Often, no one knew where the money had come from. Only later did recipients discover they had joined a long list 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 — a remarkable spirit who swept into lives, often anonymously, using her fortune to spread good in the world. She died Oct. 12, 2003.
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. Three months after her death from brain cancer, the world is still discovering the magnitude of her generosity.
In January, the Salvation Army announced it had received $1.5 billion from Kroc's estate, the largest donation in its history. At first, organization officials were so overwhelmed that they had to seek legal advice about whether they were equipped to handle such a sum — a notion that makes one of Kroc's dearest friends, Thelma Halbert, hoot.
"She would have gotten such a laugh out of that," Halbert said. "She loved to surprise people with her money. It wasn't about fame or glory, or even a sense of mission. It came from the heart. It was just who she was."
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 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 — from world peace, to fighting famine in Africa, to needs close to home.
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 Joe Carroll, a priest, a check for $800,000.
When she read a newspaper item about a Tennessee child with AIDS who would lose his private teacher because of budget cuts, she sent $235,000 to the school district to balance its budget.
When she heard about the shoddy living conditions of tigers at the San Diego Zoo, she gave the zoo $3.3 million.
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.
And there were more personal, poignant involvements.
Three years ago, when a dying patient wrote to thank her for the magnificent hospice she had built on a Mission Valley bluff top, 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."
After her husband's death the two women became friends, and Bergsma got to see a different side of Kroc — the news junkie who devoured books on current affairs, who loved watching her great-grandchildren chase her spaniels around the house as she listened to cable news or NPR, who enjoyed a good rant with friends about politics, and who never lost her Midwest accent — or what she considered her Midwest values.
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," Bergsma said.
Yet for all her wealth and generosity, outside San Diego where her name is revered, little is known about Joan Kroc.
The older of two daughters, Joan Beverly Mansfield was born in St. Paul in 1928. Her father was a railroad telegrapher and her mother a violinist. Raised during the Depression, she started teaching music at age 15.
In his 1977 autobiography, "Grinding it Out," Ray Kroc described the couple's first meeting, at the Clarion restaurant in St. Paul in 1957 where Joan 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.
"I was stunned by her blonde beauty," he wrote. Twelve years later, after she divorced once and he 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.
At the time, she knew little about baseball. Kroc wrote that when he first told his wife he was buying the Padres — they lived in Chicago at the time — she thought it was a monastery.
But she threw herself into her team, earning her players' respect and love. When the team clinched the National League pennant, star relief pitcher Goose Gossage celebrated by tossing Kroc— with her perfectly coiffed hair and immaculate suit — into a swimming pool. She loved it.
When she sold the team in 1990, it was only after backing out of a proposed earlier sale because she felt the prospective buyer wasn't worthy.
"Joan had to feel comfortable with the people in any deal," said Dick Starmann, a self-described "old hamburger guy" who became her close confidant after Ray Kroc, his boss, died. "If there wasn't good chemistry, it didn't matter how worthy the cause, she could be really tough about walking away."
Joan Kroc's first involvement in the kind of community giving that became her hallmark came the summer after her husband's death, when a gunman killed 21 people 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, 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 grew out of a growing concern about the arms race, and a conviction that a nuclear holocaust might occur before her grandchildren grew up.
"They're talking in Washington about apocalypse and Armageddon and evil empires," Kroc told The Los Angeles Times in 1985. "I just think it's time to quit this b.s."
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.
But critics didn't bother Kroc, who jokingly suggested that when it came to politics, "Ray and I kind of balanced each other out."
Inaction was what bothered her — particularly political inaction.
"Silent means consent...," she said. "We must not be silent."
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 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."
Kroc was as private about her death as she was about her life: She requested no funeral or memorial service. And she told only a handful of people about her illness, though in her last year, it was clear her health was failing.
She still played the piano and threw parties. Seven months before her death she joined Tony Bennett at the grand opening of a theater in the community center she had built, beaming like a starstruck fan as he crooned and she played Gershwin's "Our Love is Here to Stay." She received a standing ovation.
A few weeks before her death Kroc was wheeled into the 12-acre Salvation Army community center in San Diego — one of the few projects that bears her name. Ostensibly, the visit was to donate a bronze Henry Moore sculpture. But there was also a sense of farewell, of a grand old lady reflecting one last time on one of her proudest achievements, a place where children who might otherwise never have the chance could swim in a world-class pool and skate on a world-class rink, and even learn the trumpet.
Kroc said that Ray, who once rang a Christmas bell for the Salvation Army, would have been so proud. It was because she thought the center was so well run that she gave much of her remaining fortune to the organization — to open similar centers around the country.
When it opened in 2002, friends urged her to explain the reasons for her donation.
Her response was vintage Kroc.
"Ray was once asked why he gave so much of his wealth away," Kroc said. "He said: 'I've never seen a Brinks truck following a hearse. Have you?'
"I loved that!" she said.