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Before her gift, Kroc plotted

Published Aug. 27, 2005

Long before her death, Joan Kroc had begun building her legacy.

Five years ago, 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 to build 25 to 30 state-of-the-art community centers across the United States to transform blighted neighborhoods.

The huge gift grew out of a long process in which Kroc tested the army, seeing whether the 140-year-old organization could expand its vision to match hers.

The group had been a favorite of her late husband, Ray Kroc, the billionaire magnate of McDonald's, who had donated freely and posed as a bell-ringer during fundraising drives.

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.

Salvation Army officials did not know it when Kroc first approached them _ nobody outside her tight circle of confidants did _ but the San Diego center was only the beginning, the prototype.

The goal was to build and operate a 12-acre community center as fine as any in the nation. Included would be the only ice skating rink among the Salvation Army's 9,000 sites in the United States.

The complex, she said, was more than a place for games and classes; it was "a miniature peace center" where children of different backgrounds could meet.

Friends who spent time with her near the end say she was satisfied that she had found the right way to dispense her estate.

Just weeks after visiting the facility for the final time, to check on the placement of one of her last gifts _ a sculpture _ Kroc died of brain cancer at home.