SAN DIEGO — Joan B. Kroc, the railroad worker's daughter who married a fast-food magnate, owned the San Diego Padres baseball team and donated hundreds of millions of dollars to philanthropic causes, died Sunday at her home in suburban Rancho Santa Fe. She was 75.
Kroc suffered from a kind of brain cancer but, in characteristic form, had kept her illness a secret lest her friends find it upsetting.
She was the largest single stockholder of McDonald's Corp., with a fortune estimated at $1.2 billion. She was the widow of McDonald's owner Ray Kroc, who died in 1984 at age 82.
"She was a woman of generous spirit and a loving heart," said former San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor, one of Kroc's closest friends.
"When she walked into a room, she radiated joy," O'Connor said.
Her financial largess encompassed education, health care, AIDS and cancer research, youth programs, the arts, aid for residents of the flood-ravaged Midwest, famine relief in Africa, the San Diego Zoo, and, in recent years, the pursuit of peace and nuclear nonproliferation.
The extent of her philanthropy may never be fully known because of her passion for anonymity.
A Catholic, she endowed programs at two Catholic universities, the University of San Diego and the University of Notre Dame, to study nonviolence and ways to avoid war.
"She was very concerned about finding alternatives to conflict and violence," said Scott Appleby, director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. "She was worried that otherwise our future would be bleak."
"America has lost a shining example of someone who truly felt the spirit of generosity," said Salvation Army Major Cindy Foley, administrator of the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in a blue-collar, racially diverse neighborhood of San Diego.
Born in St. Paul, Minn., Kroc was the daughter of a railroad telegrapher. She learned to love music from her mother, who played the violin.
Kroc became a music teacher and was first married to a McDonald's franchise holder. The couple had a daughter, Linda.
In 1957, while playing piano in a supper club, she caught the eye of Ray Kroc, the volatile, charismatic entrepreneur who had revolutionized the fast-food industry with his assembly-line techniques and low prices. Twelve years later, after he had divorced twice and she once, they married and moved from Chicago to San Diego.
Admittedly, she was not a baseball fan in her younger years. When Ray Kroc told her he planned to buy the San Diego Padres, she replied, "What's that, a monastery?"
After his death in 1984, she assumed control of the team that her husband had purchased to keep it from being moved to Washington, D.C. In 1990, she sold the team to TV producer Tom Werner and 14 partners.
A registered independent, she often supported liberal candidates. In 1987, she donated $1 million to the Democratic Party's presidential campaign in hopes of electing a Democrat after eight years of Republican rule.
She continued her interest in politics and was a staunch opponent of the U.S. war in Iraq and President Bush's administration.
But she had decided that education, not politics, was the best way to aid the cause of peace.
"She was more concerned with the root causes of conflict and how to reorient our attitudes," said Appleby. "She thought war was never an answer." Her $6-million contribution to establish the institute at Notre Dame was typical of her spontaneous approach to deciding how to use her fortune.
She decided to start the institute after being impressed with a speech given in San Diego by Father Theodore Hesburgh, the longtime president of Notre Dame. The two had never met, but Kroc introduced herself and offered to help his efforts toward promoting peace.
In 1997, when she read about residents suffering the devastation of flooding from the Red River in Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn., she donated $15 million, enough for $2,000 to each needy family in the region.
As she often did, Kroc made the donation anonymously, but a local reporter discovered her identity by checking the tail number on her private jet when she came to Grand Forks to tour the damage. Local officials dubbed her the "Angel of Grand Forks," but she declined official recognition or thanks.
"She enjoyed having the freedom that money gives you: to have fun and to do good," said Msgr. Joe Carroll, president of St. Vincent de Paul Village in San Diego, a full-service program for the homeless and impoverished of San Diego. Kroc was a major benefactor.
She enjoyed having people on her yacht or sometimes rounding up friends for a quick trip to Paris. Both the jet and yacht were referred to as the Impromptu, a reference to her lifestyle. At Christmas parties, she played the piano and led the singing. "She loved life," Carroll said.