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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 173

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This is the grave of Joan and Ray Kroc.

Ray Kroc was born in 1902 to a Czech immigrant family near Chicago. He was just an average guy for the first few decades of his life. His father had briefly held a fortune in real estate before losing everything and the younger Kroc was also a businessman and salesman, trying a little bit of everything while also playing in World War II-era local jazz bands. After World War II, he got a job as a salesman for a milkshake mixing company. He got to know the brothers Maurice and Richard McDonald in 1954. They had purchased eight of his mixers for their store in San Bernandino and through the process, he became very impressed with the efficiency of their operation. Always looking for the big chance, Kroc saw one. Believing that most hamburger joints were scuzzy roadside operations, he wanted to take the McDonald’s California model nationwide, but under his own control. So he convinced them to let him open one of their stores in Des Plaines, Illinois. He started franchising this model across the nation, but keeping himself in primary control by doing it one store at a time, instead of the regional model common at the time. This allowed him to maintain the industrialized quality he desired. He finally bought the entire company off the McDonald brothers in 1961. By this time, he had become a multi-millionaire with hundreds of stores and employees. And of course his company would become an icon of Cold War America, with thousands of stores overseas as well.

It’s easy to make fun of McDonald’s food. That’s because it is pretty bad. The Filet O’Fish is one of the worst sandwiches in contemporary America. The McRib is exciting if you like eating pure fat. The grey burgers are just sad. Of course the fries are very good and the breakfast food completely passable. By today’s standards, McDonald’s is pretty awful. But by 1950s standards, it really wasn’t. The modern food movement has created a myth that America somewhere turned away from the wonderful locally sourced, home-cooked food of the past. But by nearly every historical account, most American food was terrible, a combination of way too much meat and sickly sweet desserts. There is almost no question that the greatest period of American food is the present, with the combination of immigrant traditions, increased quality in restaurants, and actual locally sourced food. Even the bad industrialized food is largely standardized to at least a modicum of quality. It’s not as if a can of Campbell’s tomato soup or a box of Kraft mac and cheese is terrible. It’s just mediocre. It’s true that the food of the 50s and 60s was no great innovation in quality, even as it was in convenience. But compared to the automats of the previous era, the dirty diners, and the lack of fresh ingredients, even if grandma wanted to cook a complicated meal, there were very real limitations to how good it would likely turn out. When the poverty of most Americans have historically suffered is added to this, there is no real lost golden period of American food. It’s today.

Kroc’s politics were typical of the mid-century salesman in that he despised FDR, the New Deal, and anything that reeked of redistribution. To say the least, this did not change when he became a billionaire. In 1972, Senator Harrison Williams accused Kroc of donating a nearly unprecedented $250,000 to Nixon’s reelection campaign in order to convince him to veto a minimum wage bill.

Kroc stepped down from actively running McDonald’s in 1974 and then bought the San Diego Padres to keep it from moving to Washington. He did a great job of running a really bad franchise. He was willing to spend money on free agents, but of course Major League Baseball was colluding to kill free agency. When he openly pursued Gregg Nettles and Joe Morgan in 1979, commissioner Bowie Kuhn fined him $100,000 and he gave over operations of the team to his son-in-law, sick of dealing with MLB.

After Kroc died in 1984, his wife Joan Kroc took over the Padres. She wasn’t his first wife. In fact, he had divorced his wife of 39 years in 1961, just as he got rich. Classy. He then had a brief second marriage before marrying Joan, 26 years younger than he, in 1969. She was significantly more liberal on some issues than her husband. She was highly concerned with addiction issues and opened the first clinic for baseball players with addiction problems. She had no real interest in running the team and actually tried to donate it to the city of San Diego but MLB would not let her, as it refused to have publicly owned team. How could the owners fleece the public for new stadiums if such a horror took place? She finally sold it in 1990. She was the big player in the family opening the Ronald McDonald House foundation. She was also a passionate believer in nuclear disarmament and pursued this publicly during the Reagan years, leading to public attacks on her in the media by right-wing columnist Cal Thomas. She gave generously to help natural disaster victims and when she died in 2003, she gave a remarkable $225 million to NPR.

The Krocs are buried in El Camino Memorial Park, San Diego, California.

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