In late 1997, former San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor gave her friend Joan Kroc a daylong tour of the city's neglected southeast neighborhood. Afterward, Kroc, the widow of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, told her, "I can't get out of my mind what I saw." Though her $14 million hilltop estate is but a few freeway exits away, Kroc had never visited the desolate area with its empty lots and boarded-up storefronts. "Parts of the city need help," says O'Connor. "Joan asked me to take her to see them."
Kroc, 70 and worth an estimated $2.1 billion, was in a position to help. Concluding that area children "desperately needed a safe gathering place," she gave the Salvation Army $80 million to build a community center with a skating rink, Olympic-size pool and child-care facility. Says Salvation Army Major Donald C. Bell: "She told me that if you have the resources, you should give, and she hoped other notable people would follow her example." It was just one example Kroc set this year: She also gave $25 million to the University of San Diego to establish the Mohandas K. Gandhi Institute for Peace and Justice.
Kroc has practiced such generosity with growing passion since Ray, her second husband and himself a philanthropist, died in 1984. Two years later she founded Ronald McDonald House Charities, to which she has given more than $100 million. Kroc usually has a personal reason for giving. She has funded rehab programs (Ray battled alcoholism) and a nuclear-disarmament group begun by her daughter from her prior marriage, Linda Smith. But a headline can also move her: Last year, she gave $15 million to flood victims in Grand Forks, N.Dak.
"She calls out of the blue," says Father Joe Carroll, whose San Diego parish's homeless shelter has received $3.5 million. Despite Kroc's riches, he says, "she acts like one of the crowd. She's fun to be with—but never ask her for anything. She likes to pick charities and surprise them."
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