On January 20th, the long-awaited film chronicling the life of McDonald’s executive and predominant establisher, Ray Kroc, will hit theatres nationwide. While “The Founder” is bound to have audiences walking away with some new facts (and perhaps a fair bit of fiction) about Kroc’s extraordinary life before, during and after he turned a humble group of burger joints into a fast-food empire, they’re likely to walk away missing another important part of the McDonald’s legacy: the role Kroc’s third wife, Joan, played in the innovation of alcoholism treatment. Upon closer examination, however, they will find that the relationship between addiction and McDonald’s transcends the apparent inability of many to resist Big Macs.
Ray Kroc, himself, had a problem with alcohol, providing Joan some first-hand experience in dealing with the disease. After his death, she became a dedicated benefactor to a number of philanthropic causes, including National Public Radio, the Salvation Army, the San Diego Hospice Corporation and many more. She was also politically active and a strong advocate for nuclear disarmament. In 1997, she donated $15 million to the citizens of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota after a flood devastated the area. Over time, Joan would come to be known as much for her charity as her link to the fast food franchise that made it all possible.
Joan’s breakthrough philanthropic endeavor, however, came in 1976, when she bankrolled Operation Cork, an initiative aimed at informing doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals about the dangers of alcoholism. At the time, as highlighted in a 1978 New York Times article, alcoholism was not a subject anyone wanted to fund, discuss or even acknowledge (notice how the writer of the piece freely uses the word “drunks” to describe alcoholics). Operation Cork represented one of the earliest efforts to study alcohol addiction as an actual disease. In its first two years, it gave Dartmouth Medical School $800,000 (roughly $3 million today) to develop a model curriculum in the study of alcoholism and alcohol misuse.
Operation Cork also pioneered family outreach, and focused mainly on loved ones of alcoholics who were affected by the disease. Joan recognized the ripple-effect that alcoholism has on families and, during the Times interview, stated that: “For each alcoholic in a family, four or five family members are being severely affected. We want to show them what they can do, and how they can get help.” Operation Cork was also a firm backer of Al-Anon, which Joan often called the “best-kept secret in America” and Ala-Teen, an organization that continues to council teenage family members and loved ones of alcoholics.
Joan Kroc died in 2003, nearly 20 years after her husband, and her legacy of giving continues to benefit countless people. While her efforts may often be overshadowed by Ray’s larger-than-life business accomplishments (and matching persona), anyone who has ever felt the stinging and suffocating impact of alcoholism in their lives has her to thank for furthering the conversation and working toward solutions to a problem that continues to plague millions.