From small talk, a great bequest


December 03, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

The late Joan B. Kroc loved the news. "If she wasn't on the Internet, she was listening to NPR, or watching the cables - or all three at once," says her friend and adviser Richard Starmann.

In her will, the McDonald's restaurant heiress and philanthropist bequeathed $200 million to National Public Radio - the largest private donation in the broadcaster's history.

Kroc died of brain cancer on Oct. 12 and NPR announced the gift early last month. The story of how the gift was made offers a glimpse of how in the world of philanthropy small human interactions may form the foundation of major financial donations.

"You never asked for gifts from her - ever," says Stephanie Bergsma, associate general manager at KPBS radio, which is owned by San Diego State University. "She tended to make up her mind and act very quickly."

The radio executive, who oversees fundraising at KPBS, met Kroc years ago when the heiress, who lived just outside San Diego, made donations to the station. But their relationship was cemented when Bergsma's dying husband wrote a thank-you note letter to Kroc for her support of the hospice where he was staying. Kroc spoke with Bergsma about her husband's ordeal and the two women became confidants.

Bergsma knew how much Kroc loved the news and introduced Kroc to Kevin Klose, the president and CEO of National Public Radio. "You always bring out your top people to talk to your donors," she says.

On Oct. 31, 2002, Klose and NPR Executive Vice President Ken Stern met Kroc for breakfast at Rancho Valencia, a resort about 25 miles north of San Diego. During the 90-minute meal, the group talked about NPR and its funding mechanisms. Stern explained how reporters abroad gathered news.

Klose, a former foreign correspondent, also spoke passionately about journalism, participants say. Klose "was on a scouting mission, in all probability, because he knew who she was," says Starmann, the adviser. "They talked about the news going on in the world - Iraq, Afghanistan, the United States."

Afterward, Klose and Kroc corresponded politely. He knew of her past generosity to other organizations, as well as her devotion to the cause of international peace. And Kroc wanted to learn more about his shop.

In December 2002, Klose opened a holiday card with a warm personal greeting from Kroc. It also contained a personal check for $500,000 made out to NPR, he says.

Klose again visited Kroc last March 19. Others, including friends, advisers and representatives of groups that had been recipients of past Kroc largess, were present at their meeting. She pressed Klose on whether he could use more reporters in foreign countries. Always, he replied.

Klose also talked about covering the war in Iraq. He spoke of Anne Garrels' reporting from Baghdad; the new "embed" system that allowed reporters to accompany American combat units; the technological obstacles to getting stories on the air. Heiress and executive continued to write one another. For Kroc, the philanthropic was always personal - she needed to feel a connection with those she intended to help, friends say.

By July, Kroc was aware that her health was failing, but told few people. She sent Starmann to Washington to learn more about NPR and to push executives there to think big - what would they do with more money?

"I asked, `If you could dream a little bit, and dream a bit about what you'd like to do, what would you do?'" Starmann said. He left Washington without making any promises.

He did ask, however, what recognition donors received, and Klose told him that those donating $15,000 and those who gave more than $25,000 were ranked on different levels. "I said, if Mrs. K. gave something, I'd hope we'd be in at least the $25,000 group," Starmann recalls with a laugh.

But Kroc couldn't wait for a report. When Starmann called her that evening, she replied, "Well, I'm sending the boys for you." The "boys" were the pilots of her private jet. She wanted to hear about the visit immediately.

As the summer progressed, Kroc's health faltered. "She had not thought that she would make it to her birthday [Aug. 27]," says Joyce Neu, executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego. On Aug. 22, however, she called Bergsma, Neu, Klose and a few others to say she would be holding a party on the following Wednesday.

Klose hopped a plane and joined about three dozen other guests at Kroc's home. Tuxedoed waiters circulated with appetizers as Kroc's grandchildren dashed about. A former San Diego mayor was there. So was a university president. Some guests took tours of the estate in golf carts.

Toasts were offered to Kroc on her birthday, her 75th. Bergsma gave her some CDs, feeling that music might be soothing. Klose gave her a Russian lacquered box, a memento of his days as a reporter based in Moscow for the Washington Post.

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