"She wanted to see everything done to the best level: whether it's how a building is built or how an opera company is run," Campbell said. "It's extraordinary that we once had someone like that in our community."
At the same time, Kroc knew how to use the influence of her money. In the mid-1980s, the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego and Msgr. Joseph Carroll, an independent-minded priest, were engaged in a power struggle over control of a downtown center for the homeless that Carroll directed. Kroc wrote a check for $3 million, but stipulated that only Carroll could make decisions on how it could be spent.
"Joan knew how to get things done," Carroll said.
Last spring the Salvation Army wouldn't let the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus use its 600-seat theater for a concert. Salvation Army officials objected to the chorus' plans to have several performers in drag.
Hearing of the rebuff, Kroc quietly donated a Bosendorfer grand piano worth $105,000 to the chorus, one of several contributions to gay organizations and causes. She also called Maj. Foley about the issue, and friends say Kroc told her that the Salvation Army needed to be more accepting of homosexuals.
Foley said that she explained to Kroc that the organization did not feel drag was appropriate for a family-oriented facility and that Kroc made no complaint. A few months later, however, the Salvation Army signed a contract to let a lesbian singing group perform in the theater.
Kroc's philanthropic interests were apparent at her last birthday party, Aug. 27, at her home in Rancho Santa Fe. She had been diagnosed in late June with inoperable brain cancer, but most of her guests did not know of her condition.
"She never wanted a fuss made over her," said Dick Starmann, a close friend and former McDonald's publicist. Nonetheless, there were gifts -- and toasts lavishing her with praise.
Joyce Neu, director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego, gave Kroc a coffee table book about Africa. Kroc had given to famine relief in Africa and was concerned about the cycle of strife and starvation that seems to bedevil the continent. She had donated money to establish the peace center at the university and a similar program at Notre Dame to allow them to reach abroad for scholars and students. After her death, each of the institutes received $50 million.
Kevin Klose, president of National Public Radio, had come from Washington for the gathering. He brought a small, lacquered box from his days as a foreign correspondent in Moscow for the Washington Post.
The two had met a year earlier, when Kroc invited Klose to her home to discuss the need for greater reporting from abroad.
"We're going to do really great things together," she told him at the end of the party.
It was not until after Kroc's death that Klose discovered, to his surprise, that her will would provide more than $200 million to NPR -- the largest donation in the organization's history. The birthday party, he realized, had been a gathering for people to whom Kroc was preparing to entrust her money.
"It was all very poignant," said Stephanie Bergsma, associate general manager for development at the San Diego-based Public Broadcasting System station KPBS. "She looked so beautiful but so fragile. She wasn't interested in talking about herself. She'd say, 'How are you, honey? What's new?' I knew I was going to miss her a lot."
If, in her final weeks, Kroc talked at all about dying, friends said, her only regret was that she would not get to watch her great-grandchildren grow up. She was confident that one was destined to be president and another would be U.S. attorney general.
Friends who spent time with her near the end say she was satisfied that she had found the right way to dispense her immense estate.
In the last weeks of her life, Kroc would occasionally be driven to the Rolando center. Sometimes she would just sit unannounced in her car and watch children enjoying the playing fields, swimming pools and outdoor art classes.
The budget for Kroc's first community center had started at a modest $2 million. But at her urging, the size and cost of the project had grown.
There was one feature on which she had insisted -- an ice skating rink. Given the neighborhood's demographics, that might seem an unlikely addition, particularly one built to the exacting standards of the National Hockey League to prevent frost and puddles.
But Kroc talked of the joy she had felt as a girl in Minneapolis when, after years of lessons, she had won a skating contest and qualified for the city finals.
"She said that contest was one of those moments when she realized there was a value to hard work," Major Foley recalled. "She wanted kids to get that feeling."