Dismayed by Nuclear Arms Race : McDonald’s Fortune Fuels Joan Kroc’s Peace Effort

Times Staff Writer

Once upon a time, before the invention of nuclear warheads and Chicken McNuggets, a girl named Joan was growing up in the Midwest, dreaming of becoming a nurse or a veterinarian.

As fate would have it, Joan Beverly Kroc, 57, is now entrusted with one of the great fortunes of contemporary America--that amassed by her late husband, Ray A. Kroc, founder of the McDonald’s Restaurant empire. Forbes Magazine estimates her net worth as “exceeding $525 million.” A close friend said that her wealth, including an 8.7% share of McDonald’s common stock and full ownership of the San Diego Padres baseball franchise, is closer to $700 million.

And perhaps her sense of destiny explains why Joan Kroc is so confident, cheerful and matter-of-fact about her fortune. In the 22 months since her husband’s death after a long illness, Joan Kroc has established herself as a news maker in her own right--as a bankroller of the nuclear disarmament movement.

In only a year, Joan Kroc has poured close to $3 million into the nuclear weapons debate--buying newspaper ads, commissioning book printings and funding pro-disarmament groups.

Some people, at least, are paying attention. A recent newspaper ad decrying the arms race triggered an avalanche of mail to the Joan B. Kroc Foundation in La Jolla. “You can take your advertisement . . . and stick it in your crazy, crummy ear,” wrote a self-described “Real American.”


But for every catcall in her mailbag, she said, there have been at least 10 hurrahs--plus an occasional proposal of marriage.

Much of the praise derives from more traditional philanthropy. In the last two years, she has given $3.3 million for a new San Diego Zoo exhibit, $1 million for St. Jude’s Childrens Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and $1 million to the American Red Cross for African famine relief. Sums ranging from $100 to more than $1 million have gone into health research, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, the arts, wildlife preservation and programs to combat child abuse.

Has Found Her Place

“All of my life,” she said, “I wanted to be in a position to do what I’m doing now.”

Kroc finds other ways to disburse her dollars. In 1984 she spent $6 million to produce the Jack Lemmon film “Mass Appeal,” which failed to live up to its name at the box office. She maintains homes in La Jolla and Palm Springs and indulges a passion for jewelry and travel--long trips in her Gulfstream jet, the Impromptu, and short hops in her helicopter, the Luvduv. Lunch at McDonald’s is a favorite pastime on her overseas trips.)

But what sets Joan Kroc apart from most other millionaires is her crusade against nuclear arms.

“I’m a Joanie-come-lately in this, but I feel I have more common sense than 90% of the politicians,” she said. “I’m just putting my money where I feel it will do the most good.”

Kroc said her activism grew out of a “gnawing frustration” built over years of concern about the arms race. After attending the National Women’s Conference for the Prevention of Nuclear War in Washington in September, 1984, she said, she became convinced that a nuclear holocaust may occur before her four granddaughters grow up.

Giving Away Books

Her first major move was the commissioning of 500,000 paperback copies of the book “Missile Envy” by disarmament activist Helen Caldicott. The books, which cost Kroc nearly $1 million, will be distributed free to politicians, libraries and educators in a few months.

Kroc then gave $500,000 to the Center for Defense Information, a pro-disarmament organization composed of retired U.S. military officers. The Washington-based group is considered a leading authority on U.S. and Soviet military affairs.

Next she turned to the public at large with a pair of full-page advertisements that appeared in major newspapers across the nation, one in May and one in July. The first ad featured an excerpt from a speech by President Dwight D. Eisenhower that said defense spending “signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

Readers were urged to send the ad to their representatives in Congress. The second ad provided clip-out coupons that readers could send to the White House and the Soviet Embassy as a way of urging an immediate bilateral halt to nuclear weapons testing.

About a month later, Kroc--accompanied on the Impromptu by actor Jack Lemmon, writer Norman Cousins and retired Adm. Gene La Rocque, director of the Center for Defense Information--visited Hiroshima on Aug. 6 for the services commemorating the dropping of the first atomic bomb. There she visited a hospital, appeared on a television talk show and gave interviews to the Japanese and Western press.

Daughter’s Group

While Kroc was in Hiroshima, a fledgling group called Mothers Embracing Nuclear Disarmament (MEND) staged a pro-disarmament march in San Diego that attracted an estimated 10,000 demonstrators. The mothers’ group has received substantial funding from Joan Kroc and can expect more--not surprising, considering that the group was founded by Linda Smith, Kroc’s daughter and only child.

Kroc also has agreed to a “major grant” to help Notre Dame University establish an Institute of Peace Studies, now in the planning stages.

If skeptics dismiss Kroc as a jet-set do-gooder, associates stress that she becomes personally involved in many of the causes she supports. Allies describe her as bright, emotional, impulsive and strong-willed.

“Joan is not just interested in finding a nice, safe cause like a disease or a hospital,” Lemmon said. “She is basically concerned with what the hell is going to happen to all of us. . . .

“She controls the position she is in, rather than vice versa. . . . She will always be totally her own woman. She is not overly concerned with public reaction.”

Style Is ‘Feminine’

Often described as a liberal and a feminist, Kroc eschews such labels. Registered as nonpartisan, Kroc likes to describe her political style as “feminine,” prefering gracious persuasion to confrontation.

She does not arrive at decisions through elaborate cerebrations, but relies on her emotions, friends and associates say. Kroc calls it “a gut feeling"--"my woman’s intuition. I feel most women have it.”

Typical of her approach, Kroc had a hand in editing the special edition of “Missile Envy.” Kroc, with Caldicott’s permission, excised some of the more critical comments about President Reagan. “She doesn’t want to turn anybody off if she can help it,” said Mike Sund, Kroc’s full-time press aide.

Kroc shies away from a technical discourse on the arms race. For example, when asked to detail her position on the President’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or so-called “Star Wars” laser defense, she demurred, saying that she would prefer to leave that debate to the experts.

Rather, Kroc sees her role as motivating what she perceives as a bewildered, peace-loving majority to action.

‘It’s Time to Quit B.S.’

“They’re talking in Washington about apocalypse and Armageddon and evil empires,” she said. “I fear that President Reagan shares with the Moral Majority the belief that Armageddon is near. . . . I just think it’s time to quit this b.s.

“People are frightened and they just feel powerless, and I’m trying to tell them that they’re not.”

Kroc seems at once candid and cautious of her image. During a recent interview, she requested that no tape recorder be used, noting that her taped voice could be used out of context. And when Kroc, a chain smoker, lit up a cigarette, she asked the photographer to retire his camera--"please, for the children of America.”

Kroc’s sense of destiny may be explained in part by her spiritual makeup. Raised a Lutheran, Kroc said that over time she grew uncomfortable with organized religion, although she never lost her faith in God.

“I just think He has a purpose for everyone,” she said. Later, she added: “I just don’t question it. I just feel that God is. I don’t think He loves anyone in the world more than me or loves anyone less.”

Money for Lessons

Joan Beverly Mansfield was the oldest of two daughters born to a railroad worker father and a mother who played the violin. Her father was out of work often during the Depression, and the family relocated often, scraping by, but always having enough to pay for Joan’s piano lessons. The family eventually settled in St. Paul, Minn.

She was 17 when she met and married a young man fresh out of the Navy, Roland Smith. One year later, Joan gave birth to daughter Linda.

In the early 1950s, Joan Smith took a job playing the piano and organ in a posh St. Paul restaurant, the Clarion. Then one night in 1957, budding burger tycoon Ray Kroc came to the Clarion to talk business. McDonald’s was in its infancy, and Jim Zien, owner of the Clarion, wanted in.

As he recalled in his 1977 autobiography “Grinding It Out,” Kroc, a pianist himself, was struck “by the classy organ music. . . . Finally Jim took me over to introduce me to the organist.


“I was stunned by her blonde beauty. Yes, she was married. Since I was married too the spark that ignited when our eyes met had to be ignored, but I would never forget it.”

‘It’s Kind of Corny’

Joan Kroc said she felt that spark too, though Ray Kroc, at 53, was 25 years her senior. “It’s kind of corny, but it’s true.”

The courtship lasted 12 tumultuous years.

Over the next six years, Kroc traveled often to St. Paul--ostensibly on business, but really to court Joan. He divorced his wife of 35 years and tried to persuade Joan to divorce Roland. But with her daughter still a teen-ager, Joan refused.

The two did not see each other for almost six years. Meanwhile, Ray Kroc remarried. And, as it turned out, Roland Smith had become a partner with Zien in a McDonald’s franchise and later acquired three McDonald’s franchises in Rapid City, S.D.

In 1969, Ray Kroc spoke at a convention of McDonald’s operators in San Diego. Among those in attendance were the Roland Smiths of Rapid City.

Upon seeing Joan, Kroc was “hit by the same wave of emotion that had bowled me over before.” They flirted overtly--and before the night was over, Joan told Ray that she was ready to get a divorce and marry him.

Was Meant to Be

Joan Kroc believes that their marriage was meant to be. “I believe that. We met when I was 28 and we weren’t married until I was 40. And for that six-year stretch I did not see Ray. And yet I knew--as he said he knew--that we would be married someday.” And she volunteered that while she was married to Roland Smith, her love affair with Kroc was chaste.

Their 15-year marriage also was marked by drama. “Ray loved my mother so hard. . . . They are two very strong personalities,” Linda Smith recalled. “It was like Liz Taylor and Dick Burton.”

One problem in their marriage--and one of the few subjects about which Joan Kroc is reticent--was Kroc’s drinking. She acknowledges in interviews that Ray was admitted to an alcoholism rehabilitation center after a stroke in 1980. Unless pressed, she says nothing more.

Kroc’s problem with alcohol apparently helped prompt Joan to file a divorce suit in November, 1971, citing “extreme and repeated mental cruelty.”

They were separated for a month before reconciling. “We discovered that we couldn’t live without each other,” Joan Kroc said cheerfully. She declined to discuss details of the suit.

First Major Endeavor

Her antipathy to alcohol--she drinks wine, modestly--inspired her in 1976 to form Operation Cork (Kroc spelled backwards), an alcoholism educational program. It was her first major philanthropic endeavor.

The Krocs also had happy times. In his book--which makes no mention of the separation--Ray Kroc described her as “the ideal partner in music and marriage.”

Ray Kroc, stricken with diabetes and arthritis, spent much of his last three years in a wheelchair or in bed, and Joan was usually nearby. “He wanted her around, and she was always there, right at his side,” said Zien, who has remained a friend.

Joan Kroc said that after Ray’s death in January, 1984, she had intended to go quietly about her affairs. But events placed her in the public eye, she said. “This was nothing I was seeking,” she said. “Things evolve. . . . I just think life has a plan.”

First there was the tragedy in San Ysidro in July, 1984. After a berserk gunman walked into a McDonald’s in San Ysidro and killed 21 people, Kroc came forward with $100,000 to establish the San Ysidro Survivors Fund to assist grieving families.

Tossed Into Pool

Then there was Padres’ National League pennant the following September. Kroc, whose son-in-law, Ballard Smith, is team president, joined in San Diego’s celebration and made herself available to the nation’s press. She also attended a party held by the players--and was tossed into the swimming pool.

Friends and associates expect that Joan Kroc will try to exert influence for many years to come. Despite the hawkish rhetoric of the arms race, she said, she is optimistic that, eventually, there will be progress toward disarmament.

She remembers that she was in Hong Kong in late July when the news broke that Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had called for a moratorium on nuclear testing as a gesture of good faith for the November arms summit in Geneva. His proposal was similar to that suggested in Kroc’s second newspaper ad, which had run a few weeks earlier.

“Now, I’d be crazy if I thought I had anything to do with that,” she said. “But I was so thrilled I called home immediately"--only to learn that the White House had denounced Gorbachev’s proposal as a propaganda ploy.

“I was terribly disappointed. I think we should have taken them up on that. . . . What could it have harmed? What could it have possibly harmed?”