Mystery No More

updated 06/02/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

TWELVE YEARS AGO, FATHER JOE Carroll, a San Diego priest, got a phone call from a woman asking him about the homeless shelter his parish was building. She wasn't just idly curious; by the end of the conversation she had offered $500,000 to speed the project along. So Carroll, for one, wasn't surprised when "Angel," the anonymous donor of $2,000 to each and every needy family in flood-ravaged Grand Forks, N. Dak., turned out to be his benefactor Joan Kroc. "It's just her style—quick, spontaneous, anonymous and very generous," he says.

The identity of the donor had been closely guarded since the announcement of her contribution on April 29. But last week reporters discovered that a private jet belonging to Kroc, 68, widow of McDonald's Corp. founder Ray Kroc, had recently landed three times at the Grand Forks airport. Later, North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan confirmed that Kroc was in fact the angel. Characteristically, the secretive benefactor had no comment. "She doesn't do these things for publicity," says Carroll. "She does it because she cares, and because she can."

True, on both counts. With an estimated fortune of $1.7 billion, Kroc is one of the wealthiest women in the country. She is also among the most generous. Last year she reportedly gave away $33 million to institutions, including the University of San Diego and the Betty Ford Center. The North Dakota disaster may have touched a particular nerve since Kroc, now living near San Diego, was born and raised in Minnesota. Whatever her reason, residents of the Grand Forks area have been deeply grateful, though not all those who applied were able to receive money before Kroc's initial donation ran out. "Her good deed renewed faith in people," says Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens, "and kept the community hoping that we could rebuild."

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