With the death yesterday of William Clay Ford, Sr., last grandson of Henry Ford, I’m reminded of a memorable event that I had a role in creating that brought together two great names, Ford and McDonald. Baseball owner and automotive tycoon Ford, who had been long-term design chief of the company his grandfather created, served as chairman of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn from 1951 to 1983, and as chairman emeritus after. He was the museum’s largest donor, and the museum’s core exhibit, the Hall of American Innovation, was named after him. It was there we brought together some great innovators at the hall’s grand opening, as I recounted in my essay for the Chicago Literary ClubP1010939, “Breakfast with Mr. McDonald’s” in the following excerpt:

“Another milestone of excitement and recognition for Dick came about in 1987, crowning several years of effort. The event benefitted both his reputation and the place of the company in the history of a mobile America. The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, Michigan, is a historic icon of the automobile industry and of American industry in the 20th century. It not only features Ford’s history, but the history of the entire automotive industry, and displays hundreds of historic cars of all brands, locomotives, Thomas Edison’s original laboratories and so on. But the structures that house the cars and trains were antiquated themselves. Looking like a bleak indoor car lot, row upon row of largely black autos seemed to go on forever. Determined to refurbish the place, museum staff envisioned a Midwest Smithsonian, with the auto as the star, creatively displayed in context with dioramas of the roadside culture they had spawned. They had contacted me, seeking assistance in obtaining and rebuilding a 50s era McDonald’s inside the museum, along with full scale antique gas stations, diners, motel rooms, road signs and other such mementos of time past.

“Unfortunately, we found that by then almost all of the early red and white tile drive-in McDonald’s had been replaced by the then current mansard roof building designs, and that the few remaining red and whites were either too modified to represent the brand or would be too expensive to tear down and move. But our luck was to change. Right in the Detroit market, we learned that a franchisee was about to replace a 50s era giant road sign, illuminated with pink and white neon and with an animated Speedee chef character, which was an early symbol of McDonald’s fast service. If we wanted it, we could have it, said franchisee Dan Shimel, if we could shoulder the expense of moving it, right away. In some hurried communications with the Ford Museum they agreed it would be a perfect giant artifact for inside the entrance to their new display building. I was able to put together the funding, with the help of McDonald’s Detroit regional office, and the sign was moved to the museum for restoration and installation.

“The big reopening of the Ford Museum, and its “Automobile in American Life” exhibit hall was scheduled for 1987, and it was to be a national media blow out, with a gala black tie opening fund-raising event attended by the automotive elite. William Clay Ford was to be the event chairman, and McDonald’s CEO was to among the special guests. Then we thought, wait, this historic event, all about roadside history, would be perfect for Dick McDonald, so Fred Turner agreed and Dick was invited to represent the company. We decided to make it memorable for him, which led to a lot of positive publicity.

“We worked out the program carefully with the Ford people. The grand opening moment in the vast museum, that mimicked the floor plan of Henry Ford’s first factory, would be the lighting of the giant restored McDonald’s road sign inside the museum’s entrance. As veteran Chicago auto writer Jim Mateja would write in the Tribune, “As you walk in the door, the McDonald’s sign set the tone.” Beneath the sign is a classic 1955 Chevy convertible and alongside it, the recreation of a room in the first Holiday Inn.

“At the opening, on the podium beneath the sign would stand Bill Ford, Dick McDonald and Kemmons Wilson, founder of Holiday Inn. The sign would be lighted by the three pulling a large switch that was used by Thomas Edison to illuminate his first light bulb. They did, and as the McDonald’s sign sprang to life again, the thousand-plus black tie crowd roared its approval, as the cameras flashed and the videotape rolled. Dick McDonald was in the headlines, and in seventh heaven. His wife Dot stood next to me, tears rolling down her cheeks. The event had been filled with glamorous receptions and a dinner in Dick’s honor at one of his favorite old haunts, the London Chop House. My associate Susan McBride, who still heads internal communication for McDonald’s, was there to help coordinate all the arrangements and make sure everyone in the McDonald’s system knew about this historic event and Dick’s role in it.

“Dick wrote Fred Turner after the event, saying he found Bill Ford “very pleasant” and “he told me he is an avid customer of McDonald’s. It was a memorable evening for Dorothy and me,” and he concluded warmly, saying, “Fred, I would like to quietly slip into Oak Brook to see you and hash over the old days.” He wrote Vicki and me saying, “Chuck, congratulations on the fantastic way you handled the entire affair.” A record 1.3 million visitors would tour the new museum in the next year. Indeed, we were now on a roll.”
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