SAN DIEGO — Long before her death, Joan Kroc had begun building her legacy.
In the mid-1990s, her representatives approached the Salvation Army with an idea for erecting a community center in a rundown neighborhood here. Officials from the group penciled out several rough budgets.
Kroc, who died in October at age 75, rejected them all.
"Think big," she exhorted, "bigger than you've ever thought before."
Two weeks ago, the world discovered just how big Kroc had been thinking. Her estate announced a bequest of more than $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army -- one of the largest charitable gifts in the nation's history -- to build 25 to 30 community centers across the United States in hopes of transforming blighted neighborhoods.
The huge gift grew out of a long process in which Kroc tested the army, seeing whether the 130-year-old organization could expand its vision to match hers.
"She wanted to ensure that we could address the needs of the whole person, way beyond Christmas kettles and thrift stores," said Maj. Cindy Foley, now the co-administrator of the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in San Diego's Rolando neighborhood.
What had attracted Kroc to the Salvation Army, friends and close associates say, was its sturdy reputation as a cost-effective organization with a soft spot for needy kids, a nationwide reach and low overhead.
The group had been a favorite of her late husband, Ray Kroc, the billionaire magnate of McDonald's, who had donated freely and worked as a bell-ringer next to the ubiquitous red kettles during Christmas fundraising drives. The charity would be a good steward of her money, she believed.
But officials of the somewhat dowdy organization, whose public image seems stuck in the "Major Barbara" era, were slow to let their imaginations loose. It wasn't easy to prod an institution used to gathering donations from spare change to conceive of a willing benefactor with a fortune of staggering size.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, many of the great philanthropic gifts grew out of vast industrial enterprises: Rockefeller and oil, Ford and automobiles, Andrew Carnegie, who built the U.S. steel industry and dreamed of putting a public library in every town in America.
Kroc's fortune stemmed from the service economy -- billions of dollars in sales of fast food. Her goal was using that wealth to create places for children to flourish and to build communities out of fractured neighborhoods.
When Kroc first approached the Salvation Army, its officials did not know -- nobody outside Kroc's tight circle of confidants did -- that the Rolando center was a prototype.
"I remember her saying, 'San Diego is the pilot project. If it works here, Maureen, we are going to do it everywhere,' " said former Mayor Maureen O'Connor.
The idea began with a drive through one of the city's poorer neighborhoods. O'Connor wanted her wealthy friend to see how the rest of the country lived. Their guide and driver was Police Sgt. Mike O'Neill, a veteran beat cop.
"I won't say Mrs. Kroc was isolated, but she really didn't know much about places where people have garage sales on their lawns every day and kids don't have places to go," he said.
Cruising in O'Neill's Ford Aerostar, the trio stopped to talk to people on street corners. Kroc learned that the kinds of opportunities taken for granted in affluent neighborhoods were sparse or sometimes nonexistent elsewhere.
"I remember her saying, 'I've got to do something about this,' " O'Neill recalled. "I couldn't tell what she was going to do. But I could tell from the tone of her voice it was going to be big."
Joan and Ray Kroc had married in 1969 after her divorce from her first husband, a McDonald's franchisee. Ray, a hard-driving, cantankerous entrepreneur, had met her in 1957 while she was playing the piano in a nightclub; he was immediately smitten with her friendly, fun-loving manner.
When he died in 1984 at the age of 82, his widow was thrust into the spotlight, inheriting his baseball team -- the San Diego Padres. She tired of the bickering of professional sports and sold the team in 1990, but she never abandoned her husband's belief in philanthropy.
He had formalized his giving with a foundation. She preferred a personal touch, guided by an informal protocol.
"You never asked; you just waited until it was your time," said Blair T. Blum, vice president of the San Diego Hospice. "She never forgot anything you told her." Kroc donated $18.5 million to build the hospice, and her estate provided $20 million more after her death.
Kroc did not enjoy reducing people to supplicants.
"She wasn't one of those rich people who love the 'beg me, beg me, beg me,' " said Ian Campbell, general manager of the critically acclaimed San Diego Opera, which received $10 million from Kroc's will. Gently, she demanded excellence, and hang the cost.