Sister Joan

January 23, 2004

MORE THAN a century ago, a wealthy Scottish immigrant preached of the moral obligations of the rich. Once their families were provided for, the one-time Pennsylvania steelmaker wrote, their fortunes should be administered like a trust fund to benefit their community.

Andrew Carnegie, meet Joan B. Kroc.

The 75-year-old widow of McDonald's Corp. founder Ray Kroc died last October of brain cancer. In her will, she gave vast amounts to charity, including a record $200 million grant to National Public Radio. But this week, the biggest legacy of all was announced: Mrs. Kroc left $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army. That's quite a lot of Happy Meals to land in your kettle.

The Salvation Army will use the money to develop 25 to 30 community centers across the country - places where people of all ages can gather to exercise or take classes, seek counseling or worship. The model for this is the Army's Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center in San Diego, a 12-acre facility that Mrs. Kroc financed with a $92 million gift in 1998. The center has its own swimming pool, skating rink, child care center, gymnasium and performing arts auditorium.

Ray Kroc's wife was nobody's easy mark. The gift requires much from the Salvation Army. The evangelical Christian charity can't spend a dime of it on existing programs. Half the $1.5 billion will build the centers, and the other half will serve as an endowment to keep them working. The Salvation Army will have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in matching donations to help finance the project.

But by any measure, this is a landmark event, and these centers have the potential to become vital assets to their communities - much like the thousands of public libraries Andrew Carnegie endowed so many generations ago. In fact, the comparison seems apt since Carnegie-related foundations have given away close to $2 billion over the years, and that number is still growing.

Her super-sized philanthropy puts Mrs. Kroc in rare company. In recent years, billion-dollar acts of charitable giving have been achieved by only a select few, such as media moguls Ted Turner and Walter H. Annenberg, and Bill and Melinda Gates (the Gateses having set the bar at stratospheric heights - their Microsoft-powered foundation now claims assets of $24 billion).

While few of us will ever know the joy of giving a billion or so to charity, we can honor the woman who has. Not since Sister Sarah and Sky Masterson rescued the mission in Guys and Dolls has the Salvation Army benefited from such heroics. That should set bells ringing everywhere.

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