With Manchester, NH, constantly in the news, and tomorrow’s Presidential primary in the media bullseye, I’m reminded of my frequent trips there in the 80s and 90s to meet with a local resident whose name was and is better known than any of the current political candidates, yet the man himself was known to too few.
He was Dick McDonald, co-founder with his brother Mac of the ubiquitous global restaurant chain. He would often meet me at the airport, and I remember arriving one day shortly after a modern McDonald’s had opened inside the terminal. And there was Dick, wandering through in his trench coat and hat, bedazzled by the bright neon, as if he had just landed on the moon. I was head of corporate communications for the company, and our chairman had given me the job of rebuilding our relationship with the man who started fast food in America. His house was on a cul-de-sac of a little street, with a tiny sign above his mailbox with the word “McDonald” on it — surely the smallest McDonald’s sign in the world.
Below is a segment from my essay, “Breakfast With Mr. McDonald” that can be read on the website of the Chicago Literary Club at http://www.chilit.org. Just click on the “Roster of members” and then on my name, Charles Ebeling, and you can read that and other essays I’ve written for the club.
Here’s the excerpt from my essay about a great man of modest ambitions:
Dick McDonald, who lived on until 1998, was first and foremost a kindly man, a gentleman. He was tall and solidly built, with thin gray hair combed back. He was always well dressed, seemingly always wearing a crisp suit or sport coat and tie, with a neat checked pocket square, and a McDonald’s logo pin on his tie or lapel. In retirement, he was a quiet, friendly New Englander, direct and unpretentious, enjoying a slow predictable pace into his twilight years. He was married in 1965 after his retirement and returned to his hometown, with the love of his life, his old high school sweetheart, Dorothy, whom he called Dot.
Dick and Dot lived in a neat, modest tri-level house that must have been new when he moved to Bedford, New Hampshire, a suburb of Manchester, near where they both grew up. He loved to drive and always had one or more new Cadillacs, a luxury he’d acquired when his San Bernardino restaurant became successful. He had moved back to Bedford from California after he retired in 1961. He was to spend much of his time managing his portfolio of stocks and real estate, and actively corresponding with old friends, and with those few who had discovered his pioneering innovations in restaurant service. He was quoted then as saying, “We keep a low profile. We like it that way. We value our privacy.”
They traveled a lot, driving to Arizona and the west coast, to Florida and Canada many times. He and Dot had both been married before. Dick had no children, but Dot had a son, who had two sons of his own whom Dick thought of as his grandchildren. The grandsons would come to stir old pride and determination in their grandfather’s aging bones, and bring back both tensions and gratifications that enlivened the elder’s hours.
Yes, Dick McDonald had experienced a life full of energy and experiment, failures and successes, before that retired life, at the other end of the country, in another time, which we will revisit. But now, in the autumn of his life, he was again beginning to have some fun and was reaping a second round of well-deserved recognition for the spark of entrepreneurship that he and his brother had lit, in the 1940s and 50s, and which had been fanned into an enormous flame of global consumerism by Ray Kroc, founder of the modern McDonald’s Corporation.
This then is the largely untold, eye-witness story of the reemergence, recriminations, reconciliations and the ultimate reverie of Dick McDonald. He was a man, who with his brother Mac played a pivotal pioneering role in the continuing evolution of food service for the mobile lifestyles of our modern civilization. I was given the chance to help bring his story back to life.