National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 28, 2003

Joan Kroc
-- Zuma Press/Joe Klein
Joan Kroc, peace benefactor, dies at 75

McDonald's heir revered for her unrivaled generosity to antiwar efforts


With an estimated fortune of $1.7 billion, Joan Kroc had a private jet, multiple houses, a yacht and servants.

That was her outward wealth, which didn’t much distinguish her from those on the annual lists of the world’s richest people. But she had inner wealth that did: an active and often restless conscience that earned her a revered place in the American peace movement.

At her death Oct. 12 at age 75 -- at her home in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego -- Joan Kroc’s generosity to peace and antiwar groups was unrivaled, both in the amounts she gave and in her disinterest in being hailed. Days after her death, both the University of Notre Dame and the University of San Diego revealed that she had left $50 million to each school to be used for peace education. In 1986, she gave Notre Dame a $12 million gift and reluctantly allowed the Institute for International Peace Studies to be named after her.

In 2001, she gave more than $25 million to San Diego for its peace studies program.

She understood the need for education: Unless we teach our children peace, someone else will teach them violence.

Following the death in 1984 of her husband Ray Kroc, the owner of McDonald’s, she all but franchised her donations: in the hundreds of millions, to groups such as the Salvation Army, Special Olympics, homeless shelters, hospitals, hospices and relief organizations. Grateful to National Public Radio for its coverage of the U.S. war against Iraq, which she adamantly opposed, she left the nonprofit organization $200 million.

Despite the largeness of Joan Kroc’s generosity, she was not well known beyond Southern California. The day her obituary ran in The New York Times, the paper devoted twice as much space to the deaths of a rock guitarist and a psychologist with expertise in infidelity.

Among her closest allies was Gene LaRocque, the former admiral who founded the Center for Defense Information in 1972. “Joan was horrified of war -- nuclear war, conventional war, any kind of war,” he recalled after her death. In the mid-1980s, LaRocque organized a peace conference in Washington. Only women were invited. Joan Kroc came. An enduring friendship began, with LaRocque mentoring the newcomer to the peace movement. “I never asked Joan for money,” LaRocque said, which may explain why she became one of the center’s most generous backers. It was well-known in the peace community that approaching Joan Kroc with a tin cup -- “Give me some money, I’m against war!” -- was the worst way of getting it filled.

Some 15 years ago while visiting San Diego to write about Latinos coming across the border from Tijuana, I spent an evening with Joan Kroc and her daughter Linda. At the time, Linda was running an antiwar organization called MEND (Mothers Embracing Nuclear Disarmament) that she had founded. I came to know Linda during one of her stays in Washington, where she sought to learn how to work the gears of the political machine to steer it away from war. She spoke in one of my classes, and a few months later, when in La Jolla, her hometown, she invited me to speak in schools where her daughters were students.

Over a dinner -- Mercedes McCambridge, the Oscar-winning actor, was the fourth -- both Joan and Linda sparkled with all the right graces: ample wit and plenty of probing questions, and with no pretensions that their roles in the peace movement were superior to anyone else’s. Joan was a teller of stories that made moral connections between public problems and personal commitments to find solutions. A Minnesotan whose father lost his railroad job in the Great Depression, her experiential knowledge of poverty became one of the forces that drove her philanthropy.

It was also what moved her to align herself with liberal Democrats, starting with Maureen O’Connor, then the progressive mayor of San Diego, the nation’s sixth-largest city. At Joan Kroc’s urging that I write about her, I went with O’Connor on a nighttime excursion to the Canyon of the Dead -- a desolate haven bordered by ravines and rutted roads on the Mexican-U.S. border where hundreds of impoverished refugees gather at dusk to make the trip north. O’Connor walked among them, saying that these were her people too, and staying for Mass offered by a Salvadoran priest. That Joan Kroc was an ardent backer of this unlikely mayor -- of San Diego, a balmy, golf-coursey kind of town dominated by a military base and with a weak congressional delegation in Washington -- suggests that her political convictions were liberal, lasting and lively.

Uncounted lives were improved by Joan Kroc’s generosity. A brief story about one. In 1988, one of my students, a Georgetown University student from Hungary, wanted to do postgraduate work in peace studies. I told her about the Notre Dame program and the Kroc institute. She applied, was accepted and excelled, and went on to earn a doctorate. She is now a professor of peace studies at Lafayette College, Easton, Pa.

Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, November 28, 2003

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