You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Ray Kroc’ tag.


By Charles Ebeling, for the Chicago Literary Club

Presented 1/29/18 at the Cliff Dwellers

Copyright 2018 Charles Ebeling


All of us have become casual spokespeople for others at sometime in our lives. As a youth, who hasn’t spoken out for another kid, or as an adult, for a family member or a good friend or colleague? Being a spokesman professionally just means a little more training, a little more study of the issues, a little more pressure, a little more often, and the chance to get paid at least a little for doing it.

John D. Rockefeller sort of summed up the business of spokesmanship when he explained, “Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing.”

Over the past half century, I’ve served as a public relations strategist and spokesperson for the Army, on the staffs of four Fortune 500 companies, for two global PR consultancies, and since retirement, as a board leader and occasional spokesperson for a half dozen not-for-profits. Maybe after tonight at the podium, I’ll start cutting back. Just maybe.

Meanwhile, I’ll pull back the curtain a little on the smoky world of spokesmanship. I’ve titled this essay “Spoke Smoke” not because “where there’s smoke there’s fire,” though sometimes there is. The reputation of spokespeople has seldom been stellar, sometimes because they are not good at their job, and sometimes because the content they spout on behalf of others is nonsensical, deceiving or confusing.

As playwright George Bernard Shaw explained, “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”

What personal qualities make a good spokesman? Having the right title? Saying whatever the boss would say? Being theatrical? Not really. No one cares what the spokesman’s title is. Though some would like to hear from the chief executive officer directly, others would find a line worker in an organization just as credible. What they want is someone who knows and states the facts. As for content, a good spokesman isn’t just a shadow for the boss, he or she needs to be able to have a good grasp of the issues and put management’s views in context for the listener. As for theatricality, leave that for Saturday Night Live and the celebrity spokespeople.

Not every spokesperson has the celebrity quality of a Ronald Reagan for GE, nor William Shatner for Priceline or Flo the Progressive Girl, or even the peripatetic Geico gecko. In today’s world, a spokesperson should avoid the hype and simply be articulate and sincere.

A recent example demonstrates where a CEO might have better stayed home and let a competent professional spokesperson take the mike, armed with facts and humility. This was the case last April when United Airlines allowed a passenger to be dragged from their seat. United Airlines’ stock plummeted after videos of a passenger being violently dragged off an overbooked plane circulated on the Internet. At first, United stood by the forceful removal of the passenger but then issued a cold apology, with the company’s CEO saying, “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” After intense backlash and boycott threats, United took full responsibility and finally made the apology that it should have made immediately.

By this point, it was too late for consumers and the public to be appeased. United’s consumer perception dropped to a 10-year low following this incident and the company’s handling of it. A meaningful company crisis communications plan would have identified that a sincere apology should have been made during the immediate aftermath of the incident. As Warren Buffet says, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and 5 minutes to ruin it.” U.S. trust in business plummeted by eight percentage points last year, leaving us just five points ahead of Russia, the land of the oligarchs.

There is no larger reputation story than that being played out today at the pinnacle of national politics. It might have started, as the Washington Post reported, when back in the 80s and 90s, Manhattan journalists began to hear from a so-called spokesman for developer Donald Trump named “John Miller” or “John Barron.” They were purported public-relations men who sounded precisely like Trump — who in fact was Trump himself, masquerading as an unusually helpful and boastful advocate for himself, according to the journalists and several of Trump’s top aides.

Fast forward to the Presidential election of 2016, when we became painfully aware of some of the even deeper pitfalls of spokesmanship. A shadowy political operative named Sean Spicer emerged to become a household target of mockery — for many of us, with statements such as, “The President’s tweets speak for themselves.” His daily performances as White House Press Secretary, were topped weekly by Melissa McCarthy’s merciless, yet revealing transgender parodies of him on Saturday Night Live.

We don’t know whether Sean Spicer accurately reflected the views of his boss, the T-man, when he persisted with “alternative facts” on the size of the inaugural crowd, made an ignorantly inappropriate Hitler reference and later hid in the White House bushes from the President, among numerous other performances, eroding the image of a spokesperson in the minds of many.

It didn’t take too long before he lost his job, too. In a Monmouth university poll, 42% of respondents said Spicer hurt the President while only 28% said he helped. As for the President, as Harry Truman said: “All the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.”

Spicer’s successor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in the minds of some, is even more a parody of a credible spokesperson, raging against the “fake news.” Maybe this depends on your politics, but my view is that the personalities of these spokespeople have often gotten in the way of the content, and their loyalties, in this case unfortunately, have gotten in the way of truth. Thanks to them, the reputation of spokespeople everywhere was taken down several notches, from a level that was already not very high. As Abe Lincoln himself put it, “What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives himself.”

Back when he was running for President, Dwight Eisenhower tapped James Hagerty, a former reporter for the New York Times to be his press liaison, thus becoming the first full time well-credentialed Presidential Press Secretary. Hagerty had previously served as a press secretary when New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey ran for the presidency.

Hagerty’s experience as a journalist and skills in media relations helped him perform his role more effectively. The New York Times’ John McQuiston commented that having spent years as a reporter on the other side of the news barrier, helped his credibility.

At Hagerty’s first meeting with White House reporters on January 21, 1953, he laid down ground rules that are still largely a model for how a credible press secretary might operate. He said: “I would like to say to you fellows that I am not going to play any favorites, and I’m not going to give out any exclusive stories about the President or the White House.

When I say to you, ‘I don’t know,’ I mean I don’t know. When I say, ‘No comment,’ it means I’m not talking, but not necessarily any more than that. Aside from that, I’m here to help you get the news. I am also here to work for one man, who happens to be the President. And I will do that to the best of my ability.”

. Of course, in today’s world, what some call “spin” or more currently, “fake news,” is meant as an indictment of the news media themselves. I recently saw a photo of a fellow at a 2016 political rally wearing a T-shirt that read “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.” So perhaps I should not lament so much about the burdens of life of a mere spokesperson. Both spokespeople and journalists can often, these days, hear the refrain, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” running through their thoughts.

For tens of thousands of spokepeople in all walks of life – celebrity, politics and government, business, sports, not-for-profits, the military, and for the communications media, establishing credibility as a spokesman has become a greater challenge than ever. The concept of “spoke smoke,” a term I’ve invented for the sometimes questionable content of those who speak for others, has increasingly become the image that private citizens attach to the effluence flowing from the mouths of those designated the spokeman or spokeswoman for a cause, a party, a personality, an issue or an event.

“Spoke Smoke” equals “fake news” to many.

The role of those people selected to represent the views and news of others isn’t changing, but their generalized public persona certainly has suffered. Let’s take a closer look at spokesmanship, what it’s all about and how it is changing in today’s world of instantaneous communications. While some like to hear from the chief executive office, that’s not always such a good idea.

For example: A good spokesperson is vital to any business or organization. Still not sure? Then let’s take the well-used example of Tony Hayward who was CEO of BP during the Deep-Water Horizon oil spill in the Mexican Gulf in 2010 where over 87days the damaged wellhead leaked more than 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Not only did Mr. Hayward tell the media that the Gulf of Mexico was “relatively tiny” compared with the “very big ocean,” he also commented that he wanted the whole episode to be over, as he would like his life back. He was then photographed racing his sailing yacht in Europe. He showed an apparent disregard for the eleven men who lost their lives when the oil rig exploded and caused the largest accidental ocean spill in history. The lesson, as PR veteran Samra Bufkins put it: “If the public thinks you have a problem, you have a problem.”

Tony Hayward showed perfectly how not to do it, becoming in the process the then most hated man in America. He wasn’t prepared, he didn’t respond to the real issues and worst of all he showed very little sympathy. Mr. Hayward was heavily criticized for his comments about the tragedy and was repeatedly called to step down from his position as CEO. BP managed the whole crisis communications situation so badly that even President Barack Obama said that Hayward “wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements.” Hayward was soon replaced as CEO of BP.

The lesson? As historian and professor Daniel Boorstin says, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers.”

My first experience as a spokesman was a by-product of a surprisingly successful experiment in college politics, back in the mid-60s. My new college roommate was an old friend from back home who had transferred to Bradley University from the University of Mississippi. He was an articulate fellow who made friends easily, and over a conversation one evening about the new trend towards co-ed dorms, we hatched a plan. He would run for student council president, even though almost no one yet knew him, on a theme that Bradley ought to be more liberal about student rights. I would be his campaign manager, and create the messages, the speaking platforms and the printed materials to support his crusade. He would simply be the face of change.

We lost the election to a more serious, well known and much more deserving student candidate, but the surprising thing to us was that we came in a very close second. The messages I created for him and the communications channels we exploited to deliver those messages almost put us over the top. My undergraduate major was journalism, with a specialty in public relations, and through that election experiment I learned a valuable lesson about the serious power of spokesmanship and the application of the communications tools that surround it. I also learned that PR and spokesmanship could be used for good, but also for not-so-good.

Many people don’t realize that at least 50% of news media coverage originates from public relations sources. After all, the news has to come from somewhere, and it’s nothing new that news media are chronically understaffed. In today’s age of exploding social media taking the place of traditional newspapers and magazines for many, it should not be surprising that editorial and news staffs at major news outlets have been further cut. Steven Colbert’s satirical show coined the word “truthiness” to describe something that someone believes without analysis, logic or evidence of support, as is often the case on social media. In this era, public relations people have become even more influential factors in the world of communications.

Here’s a CEO who made a big splash as his own spokesperson some years back. He became a pitchman who had a logical reason to convince people to buy a car. Once a Ford executive, Lee Iacocca took the job as Chrysler CEO and decided to speak for the company himself. His famous sales pitch: “If you find a better car, buy it.”

That’s some straightforward honesty, and it worked for Chrysler. They were struggling through the early 80s, but Iacocca and his frank TV spots helped the auto manufacturer regain sales and get out of debt. And celebrity spokesman Ricardo Montalban reassured consumers that “rich cordovan leather” awaited them in their new Chryslers.

My real life indoctrination into spokesmanship was a failed bargain I made with the devil himself, during the Vietnam War. I had earned an Army commission after graduation, and had been assigned to the staff of the Army War College, as an operations officer. I really wanted to gain some military experience in public relations, so I applied to the Department of Defense Information School for their officer’s career course in public affairs. This is the school where every military service’s communications people learn their craft. To be accepted, I had to volunteer to be assigned to Vietnam. I knew that when I graduated, I’d have only 6 months of service commitment remaining. A tour of duty in Vietnam was then one year, so I thought the Army would not even bother to send me over there. I was wrong, and after graduation was promptly assigned to serve as a press escort officer at the press camp closest to the border with North Vietnam.

While at the Information School we had been indoctrinated with the philosophy that our mission was to provide the press with “maximum disclosure with minimum delay.” The reality was that we were directed by higher headquarters to be more helpful as “connectors” between news media people who were friendlier to the government war effort. Our government sometimes had an agenda, and press officers as spokespeople were obligated to that agenda. I was lucky enough to come home safely from Vietnam, but I had learned a valuable lesson about the limits of spokesmanship. About what a later generation would come to know as “spin.”

Back in civilian life it was often just as challenging being a spokesperson. It involved much more than just speaking the words. A spokesperson is first and foremost someone who the top leadership of an organization trusts, and who can be relied upon to reflect both the tone and content of what that leadership wants communicated. A spokesperson must be both a resourceful internal reporter within the organization, but also someone with the judgment and experience to determine where, when, how and what information to present, and who to speak to, and have the presence, loyalty and maturity to handle it all well under pressure.

One of the first professional lessons a spokesperson learns is that a press conference is usually the last choice as a venue to communicate to the news media. Why? One question is: Is the news important enough to attract the press – will anyone want to attend? Second, is the information important enough that members of the press will come out to hear the same things at the same time their news media competition will hear it? Every reporter prefers an exclusive or private interview. And lastly, where to hold a press conference is a big issue. Where and why will the press be willing to turn up? The loneliest podium in the world is the one with no one in front of it.

The best way to hold an interview is to meet a reporter eye-to-eye, so personal rapport can be established, and nuance can be communicated. Next preference these days is contact by Skype or phone, for many of the same reasons. Least desirable is by text or email, where nuance is difficult to determine and intent may be confused.

But spokesmanship often takes place in crisis situations, in which events are rapidly unfolding, and something must be said, even with incomplete information or direction. This is where the spokesman is on the spot, and must come through.

Mike Love, who headed public relations in the UK and Europe for McDonald’s for 13 years, had previously served as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s spokesman. He ominously tells us, “When the voice on the other end of a mobile phone call starts by asking, “are you driving – then you should pull over” you just know this is not going to be good news.”

He continued, “The Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came on the line. I listened. The call was brief, but more than appreciated at such a moment. I mumbled something about unswerving loyalty and everybody doing what needed to be done. A statement would be issued in 30 minutes confirming she had decided not to go forward for re-election in the second round of voting. She had informed the Queen and the Cabinet of her intention and within 30 minutes the public announcements would be made.” Mike was then Mrs. Thatcher’s political agent and his job was to manage the fall-out in her constituency from her announcement that she was stepping down from office.

He spent the next several days giving interviews to local, and then national and international media. He recalls that, for him, was an unusual moment in the spotlight. As a political agent, his main job had been to be a behind-the -scenes person who helped make things happen, who wrote the words coming from the mouths of others, to organize events and platforms, but not to speak his own words, as he put it. He recalls that similar experiences at a relatively young age were more than great preparation for his later career as a director of international communications for organizations such as McDonald’s, Microsoft and British Telecom. Each of those roles involved managing the media relations for high profile issues and crises.

Like me, Mike Love reflects that at McDonald’s almost everything in life happened every day somewhere in the world. There was the potential for a crisis almost every day, often requiring counsel from our corporate home office. He observed that crisis media communications work is more often than not concerned with the opposite of proactive consumer and brand PR, and that often no news really is often good news.

Another former associate of mine, Walt Riker, who succeeded me as global spokesperson for McDonald’s, was a former newsman who went on to become, for 13 years, press secretary to Bob Dole, long time Senate majority Leader and one-time Presidential contender. Walt comments: “Being a spokesman isn’t for the squeamish. It’s all about being ready to stand on the firing line 24/7, for good news, for bad news, tragic news or news you can’t even imagine. You have to be quick on your feet, creative, deeply informed on the issues, and willing to stand tall even as critics and tough reporters try to trip you up. It is pressure packed, unpredictable and filled with risk. One wrong quote and you will be second-guessed and criticized from every side, including your own. Believe me, there isn’t a spokesperson in the world who hasn’t made a mistake, or two. In fact, one day, working for Dole, a misquote from me crashed the wheat market.”

Walt recalled one night in Orlando, Florida, while working for McDonald’s at their global franchisee convention. He stumbled from his bed to the ringing phone. As he said, his job was “to answer that phone, every day, every hour of my seventeen years with McDonald’s. I soon heard a familiar company voice, saying ‘Walt. This is bad. Jim Cantalupo, who was company CEO, is dead.’ “ In a few hours, Cantalupo would have been addressing 17,000 enthusiastic members of the global McDonald’s family at the brand’s global convention. And instead, in a few hours Walt would be addressing reporters from around the world calling to get comments about this staggering and tragic event. For the next three days he answered countless questions but never wavered from McDonald’s core message – they were prepared to meet the challenges of this unexpected tragedy. The company had anticipated the eventuality of such an extreme disruption to its business. The board met within hours of Jim’s passing, and had elected a new CEO; a smooth transition was already underway and the board was moving ahead, not only with its convention, but also with McDonald’s business strategies and leadership in place.

You might wonder why people like Mike Love in the UK and Walt Riker here at McDonald’s headquarters, myself and dozens of other senior communications people were needed for what might be described as “just a hamburger company.” But keep in mind that McDonald’s employs some 1 ½ million people in more than 100 countries and interfaces face to face with 70 million customers, a day, in 37,000 retail locations. Not only does everything, from birth to death, from weddings to mayhem, that happens in human life occur at a McDonald’s every day, but the company is also a bellwether of the stock market, one of the Dow Jones 30 Industrials, and one of the best known, most ubiquitous and therefore most controversial consumer brands on the globe. That adds up to a lot of balls in the air.

One of the most challenging balls that were bouncing around and fluttering in the air when I joined McDonald’s corporately was the challenge of rebuilding a relationship with the surviving McDonald brother, Dick, who sold out to Ray Kroc in 1960 under a cloud of acrimony and mistrust, and then had no contact with the company for 25 years, until after Kroc’s death in late 1984. I joined the company to head corporate communications in early 1985, and was soon assigned to go to work to rebuild the non-relationship with the man whose name was on our door.

For the next 13 years, I folded Dick and his family back into the global McDonald’s family, often meeting him at his New Hampshire home, and honoring him through events at the Smithsonian, in Congress, at the Ford Museum, at the site of he and his brother Mac’s original McDonald’s in San Bernardino, at visits with company leaders and in tons of media interviews. Even the Wall Street Journal featured Dick and me in a front page center story discussing the new relationship. While he and I and our chairman Fred Turner became fast friends over that 13 years until his death in 1998, his family still continues the now ancient feud today, and received 7 million dollars to see their divisive version of the Ray Kroc relationship in last year’s Hollywood film featuring Michael Keeton called “The Founder.”

Over the years I served as head of media relations worldwide for McDonald’s, I didn’t carry home a crisis plan each night, but a briefcase filled with phone numbers and later, email addresses. I had on hand all the corporate key contacts, the security people, the medical, legal, political, financial and public relations advisors available to the company, whom I might notify and seek advice from in the event of disaster.

My staff and I never hesitated to wake up or seek out, the CEO, CFO, CMO or even the Board Chairman, if there were an event or development they should know of, or provide direction. One time among many, I had to track down the CEO regarding a critical, urgent question from a prominent publication. He was on vacation somewhere in Mexico, and his assistant had been directed not to bother him under any circumstances. I insisted and persisted, and after I had roused him from a nap by the pool with a call to his private cell number, and received the answer I needed, he said to me, in total sincerity, “Chuck, sometime in the future, I want you to track me down again, to the ends of the earth like you just did, and instead of assaulting me with a horrendous question, just tell me a dirty joke.” We laughed.

I’m reminded of another time our CEO Mike Quinlan had a good laugh at my expense. He was warming up a room of key security analysts in New York City, before leading a financial presentation about future prospects for our global company. He commented to the august group, “Sometimes I wonder if you take McDonald’s seriously, since our chief spokesman is a clown,” referring implicitly to McDonald’s mascot, Ronald McDonald. As the crowd snickered, one of the news media people assembled to cover the event in the back poked me, and cajoled, “He must have meant you.”

While I did serve as corporate communications officer for the company, my business card also said I served as chief spokesperson for the brand. I was very proud to have been acknowledged that way, as that was back in the day before the most credible spokesperson for many organizations became the lowliest line employee, and before CEOs enjoyed declining credibility.

In a world where companies have more credibility than governments and the news media, communications group Edelman has found only 44% trust the word of CEOs. There has been a surprising resurgence in trust in technical and academic experts. And while trust in journalists has recently increased in the double digits, trust by the general public in social media and search engines has plummeted in the past year.

Simply telling the truth can sometimes be a challenge while serving as a spokesperson. One old friend, who taught me much about how to communicate for a publicly- owned company, later went to work doing PR and investor relations for a prominent publically traded Florida development company. Management asked him to tell some lies about their growth prospects. He refused, and lost his job. Then one day, I picked up the Wall Street Journal and read about him telling the story of the company’s skullduggery, on the front page left column. Revenge is sweet, but I don’t think his career ever recovered.

My own career hit the bumps when my working relationship with an investigative journalist turned sour. He covered the food industry for the Wall Street Journal, and had taken issue with the company over concerns raised by some former franchisees and a handful of anonymous sources within the current franchisee ranks and some security analysts. His writing was so inflammatory and inaccurate that we eventually decided only to deal with him in writing, and make our case through other less-biased journalists. It took years, but we finally convinced his editor and publisher to come out to our Oak Brook home office to share a burger, fries and some straight talk with our CEO and myself to clear the air and reset our relationships.

In another situation, I caught a so-called trusted newsperson in their own deception, when my secretary told me the editor of a prominent Chicago business journal had called to ask the birthday of our CEO. It was a seemingly innocent question, but my curiosity was sparked. So I called him back myself and asked what was up. He acknowledged then that he was indeed writing an editorial, claiming our CEO was disconnected with Wall Street, and thus not doing his job. I immediately ran through details of our CEO’s recent active schedule of calls and direct meetings with security analysts in New York, some of which I had attended. But the editor ran the critical editorial commentary anyway, as if we hadn’t even talked.

A few weeks later, I was speaking to a graduate class in corporate PR at a prominent Chicago university, when a student asked me if I ever experienced unfairness from the news media. I told him the story, and suggested that the editor had acted in a “corrupt” way, because I had given him information that obviated a story line that someone had fed to him, and he had the temerity to run it anyway. My comment about the editor “leaked” because someone in the room with the students reported it to the media, and the next thing I knew, the Wall Street Journal, Business Week and other media were writing about how the McDonald’s PR guy had called a high level editor corrupt.

My board of directors compelled me to apologize, assuming a major publication must be placated on such a hot issue. On a flight to New York with the CEO on the company plane, I offered him my resignation. He paused for a second, and then said, “Forget it.” I later took the offending editor to breakfast to clear the air, and he asked me why I described him as corrupt. Speaking earlier to a class of graduate communications students, I had explained that I considered him to be intellectually corrupt because he wrote lies when he knew better, just to please one of his regular “sources” who perhaps wanted to short the stock. His reply: he said he could live with “intellectually corrupt.” It was then I remembered this adage from media training class: “Criticizing the news media is like wrestling with a pig. You are going to get dirty and the pig is going to love it.”

Most of those selected as spokespeople have experience and training that prepares them for the role. At McDonald’s we had hundreds of trained spokespeople around the world, dispersed to represent their local nationalities, geographies and areas of expertise.

Before I became McDonald’s chief spokesperson, I had 17 years as a public relations spokesperson with other companies. At Allstate Insurance, I was a company advocate for driver’s education and anti-drunk driver legislation. At Toyota, we promoted car safety. At Baxter Labs, we helped clarify complex medical therapies for the press.

Part of my own self-imposed portfolio at McDonald’s was to maintain more than 100 personal, first name relationships with key business writers, editors, on-air personalities and producers, meeting with them often at their offices around the globe and hosting them at ours, to tell the ongoing McDonald’s story, even when there was no breaking news.

We employed former news people and spokesmanship experts to train our top managers, board members, franchisees and suppliers on how to speak for and represent the business. We conducted these sessions all around the world, in small one-on-one situations to recreate the stress and atmosphere of real encounters with news media and consumers.

One of the most generous compliments I received when I retired was from an Australian, Charlie Bell, then president of McDonald’s Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa group, and later global corporate CEO, when he wrote, “You might remember when we met during a media training session. I listened intently to your words of wisdom and those words have served me well. In fact, I’ve built my entire McDonald’s career off what I learned from you.” Despite his hyperbole, the truth is that media spokesmanship training incorporates many of the elements of the kind of strategic “thought leader” training that has benefitted generations of successful organizational leaders in all walks of life.

But, there are also some media spokes-types who are not even people, yet can warm the hearts and convince millions to support their brand. Anheuser-Busch’s famous Clydesdales can’t use words to sell their product but that hasn’t stopped them from selling millions of beers and becoming iconic representatives of the Budweiser brand in the process.

The thumping Clydesdale spokes-horses made their first appearance in 1933 as a gift from the Busch sons to their father in celebration of the repeal of Prohibition. The sight of Busch Sr. and his two sons moved to tears over the gift of Clydesdales inspired the “crying in your beer” phrase still heard in bars around the world to this day.

Since that tear-provoking debut, the champion Clydesdales, most frequently in a six-horse hitch, have appeared in countless commercials, appearances across the country and even alongside U.S. presidents, notwithstanding the current one, in inauguration parades. Marketing author Seth Godin summed it up well when he said, “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories and magic.”

Speaking of magic, my old friend and PR guru Tom Harris tells the story of the greatest spokesperson who never lived. Back during the Second World War, she was even named the 2nd most popular woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt. She was reportedly born in 1921 at a small town mill, later to become General Mills. Gold Medal flour was running a recipe contest, so the ad manager dreamed up a person named Betty to answer the many questions from entrants. The name was picked because it sounded, “cheery, wholesome and folksy.” The name of a beloved former company director was Crocker, so the invented spokes-baker became Betty Crocker. By the way, Ray Kroc, who bought rights to the McDonald’s brand from the brothers of that name, decided to keep the name for the business McDonald’s, because he felt it sounded like a good All-American name.

I decided the time was neigh to apply for an early retirement, after nearly a quarter century as a McDonald’s spokesman. Over that time, I had negotiated with Coretta Scott King, introduced franchisees to President Clinton on the White House lawn, played the kazoo at Carnegie hall in rehearsals with Lionel Hampton and shot miniature basketballs with a young Michael Jordan. I spoke every day with news people around the globe, cut ribbons at Ronald McDonald House openings, chaired annual shareholder meeting press conferences, launched new products alongside the Rockettes at Radio City Music Center, and routinely picked up the phone in the middle of the night during crises.

Stepping down from the Golden Arches on the cusp of the Millennium, I felt like a little like a 16-year-old going on summer vacation, but with a bigger allowance. I also shifted my energies into several not-for-profit causes, one of which was the Geneva Lake Conservancy, a regional land trust that protects natural habitat in the Lake Geneva area. The Conservancy also speaks out on local environmental issues that affect land and water. One such major issue became the fight to preserve Yerkes Observatory, America’s first astrophysical laboratory and still home to the world’s largest and still operating refracting telescope, the kind you look straight through like an old fashioned telescope. The revered University of Chicago, which created the famed observation facility at the time of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, decided to sell it off for development of a hotel/spa and home sites. The Yerkes property includes nearly 100 beautifully groomed acres running down to the lake, and has the last 550 feet of undeveloped shore land and woods along the lakeshore. It is both an environmental and historic treasure.

We at the Conservancy helped light a fire of community protest that mobilized lake residents and reached far beyond. As Conservancy chair, I found myself doing interviews with a score of newspapers and magazines, and appeared before the editorial boards of the Chicago Tribune and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The bottom line is that after a long year of this well-coordinated effort, the University reversed its decision, canceled the sale contract and fired the university executive who had been in charge of engineering the deal.

Now, more than 10 years on, the University continues to operate the observatory with a staff, including astronomers, as a unique educational site, and has reinvested in the facility, and its historic lakeside grounds, once trod by Native Americans. The facility remains today in pristine condition. Many people were involved in the complex choreography of saving Yerkes, and I take small credit for coming up with one line that said it all: “The University of Chicago has been accidental conservationists of this site of rare beauty and historic importance for more than 100 years, and it ought to stay that way.”

Not so successful have been my recent attempts to stimulate some remorse and a change of heart at my old employer to save the restored site of Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s restaurant in suburban DesPlaines, first opened in 1955. The building and its iconic road sign were slated for demolition, ostensibly because of flooding issues, but more likely because of a company hyper-focused on reinventing itself, even at the expense of some of its heritage. I found myself defending this way station of post-war roadside history, even being interviewed in print and on WGN radio, where the host commented that President Trump is a big McDonald’s fan, and wondered if he might help spur renewed historic preservation. I responded that McDonald’s could do that themselves with the support of “their own orange-haired clown.” The host then noted that I was quite clearly a “happily retired former spokesperson” for the brand.

As in all professions, it is an honor to be able to stand tall for people, products, organizations and issues that we value. Trying our best to tell the truth in the process, while not being just another Siri or Alexa chatbot, can be most challenging, and sometimes satisfying. To paraphrase what Mark Twain said of public relations: “It is about a good story, well told. That’s why I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”

The arc of connectiveness is indeed integral to the human condition, and spokespeople play a key role in realizing that in today’s world. At times we even deliver on opportunities to bring new clarity to vital issues and disperse that foggy “Spoke Smoke,”

Fifty years as a spokesperson have flown by, and that makes me think it’s about time for a break, as we used to say at McDonald’s. And for that I’ll be most grateful.


Chuck Ebeling earned a degree in journalism from Bradley University and also studied at the University of Chicago. He served in Vietnam and Chicago as an award-winning Army press officer, served on the corporate PR staffs as a strategist and spokesperson for Allstate Insurance, Toyota, Baxter International and McDonald’s Corporation. He has served in not-for-profit board leadership roles in the hunger relief, health care, environmental, historical, and literary fields.

Chuck also created the Ebeling PRize through which he supports and recognizes student community programs in cause-related communications at Bradley and Loyola of Chicago universities. In 2011, he was inducted into Bradley University’s Centurian Society, recognizing graduates who have become national or international leaders in their field.

“Spoke Smoke” is Chuck’s 14th essay presented to the Chicago Literary Club, of which he was President in 2016-17.



One thing not to be so thankful for this Thanksgiving week is that McDonald’s, the world’s largest restaurant business with 37,000 locations worldwide, announced that it has no room in the modern world for Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s location in Des Plaines, Illinois. The historic non-operating museum restaurant, rebuilt to original plans on its original site in 1985, and since become a popular tourist destination, is slated to be demolished within a month, with relics preserved and land donated to the city.

Of course, the Des Plaines restaurant was actually the ninth McDonald’s ever built, including the McDonald brother’s very first location in San Bernardino, California, now long gone, except for a cement and bronze marker at the site (Update: Those commemorative bronze markers have since been chiseled out and stolen). But DesPlaines, now apparently destined for the same treatment, is where Kroc really launched the chain, attracting throngs of local customers while showing off the potential of the business to prospective franchisees. It is also where Kroc’s successor as Chairman and CEO, Fred Turner, began work flipping burgers for one dollar an hour.

In his autobiography, Grinding it Out, Kroc recalls the beginnings: ” It was in DesPlaines, a seven-minute drive from my home and a short walk from the Northwestern Railroad Station, from where I could commute to the city.” He recalled the opening: “Art Bender, the McDonald brothers’ manager, came to DesPlaines and helped me and Ed (McLuckie) open that store on April 15, 1955. It was a hell of an ordeal, but the experience was to prove invaluable in opening other stores.” Ray said he would “drive down to DesPlaines each morning and help get the place ready to open. The janitor would arrive at the same time I did, and if there was nothing else to be done, I’d help him. I’ve never been too proud to grab a mop and clean up…in the evenings I would commute back to DesPlaines and walk over to the store. I was always eager to see it come into view, my McDonald’s!”

There are plans for historic displays at McDonald’s new corporate headquarters, now being build in the hot, growing business district of West Chicago, however something quite tangible will be lost when that early neon-swaddled McDonald’s — Ray Kroc’s first — no longer exists, and on its original site. Of course, the museum restaurant could be reconstructed, indoors or outdoors, in conjunction with some other museum, such as the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago or the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where the Wright Brother’s shop and Thomas Edison labs stand, but that would take some doing, and some caring, from the corporate folks at McDonald’s. We’ll see.

THOMAS TASCHINGER: Hef was last of Big Three that changed pop culture

Published 6:10 am, Sunday, October 1, 2017

The death of Hugh Hefner last week closed a special chapter in modern American history. He was the final survivor of the trio that changed this country forever after World War II.

Prior to that conflict, this nation had millions of people who lived on farms, rarely traveled far from home and lived basic lives.

After the war, we emerged as a modern, industrialized giant that became the greatest superpower since the Roman Empire.

While all that was happening, Hef and two other men helped change our pop culture from what we were to what we are.

One of them was Ray Kroc, the only one on this list whose name is not instantly recognizable to many. He deserves better, since he changed the way we eat.

In 1954, after he lost his job as a milk shake mixer salesman, he joined a small California hamburger chain called McDonald’s. That company had purchased eight of his mixers for one of its restaurants, and he was impressed by its cleanliness and organization.

He thought the same concept could be expanded, changing roadside dining from spotty quality to something you could rely on. It wouldn’t be great food, but it would be good food. And fast.

Kroc’s vision changed eating, and eating out, in America. McDonald’s was followed by other chain restaurants, and almost overnight it was possible to get cheap, decent chow on the run. It blended well with our fast-paced, postwar outlook, especially because it was also inextricably linked with interstate highways.

They could be credited to the second member of this trio, Dwight David Eisenhower. It was said that he was impressed by the autobahn Adolph Hitler had constructed in Germany prior to starting World War II. Ironically, that of course is the same conflict that Ike ended in Europe.

Congress authorized construction of the system in 1956, also known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. The initial goal was to allow troops and trucks to move about quickly in time of war, just as in Germany. Civilian traffic, however, quickly overwhelmed it.

Getting from Point A to Point B became a lot easier. Going from one city to another no longer required the planning of a railway trip. You just got in your car and went. The postwar economy was booming, and almost everyone could afford the latest creation from Detroit.

And thanks to Ray Kroc and his copycats, you could easily grab a meal on the way.

Hugh Hefner grew up in the midst of these vast societal changes. He was also a World War II veteran, writing briefly for an Army newspaper. He is one of the last prominent members of that conflict to fade away.

In 1953, however, he was angry. Esquire magazine, where he worked as a copy editor, had denied him a $5 weekly raise. He quit in frustration and thought he’d try to publish his own magazine.

Whatever you think of Playboy, it changed Americans’ attitude toward sex. It was no longer reserved for married people, and vaguely distasteful. It was pleasurable, and singles could partake. In turn, people who had a new outlook on something so fundamental were open to other questions about what it means to be human.

Sure, eventually someone else would have caused these tectonic shifts in American life. But someone else didn’t. Kroc, Ike and Hef did. Now they are all gone.


Thomas Taschinger,, is the editorial page editor of The Beaumont Enterprise. Follow him on Twitter at @PoliticalTom

Scan 6Pictured is McDonald’s restaurant pioneer Dick McDonald, third from left, with (L toR) Chuck Ebeling, Dot McDonald,  and Dick Starmann.

Many are looking forward to the new motion picture, “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton, due in theaters in December, 2016. It purports to be the story of how entrepreneur Ray Kroc discovered the small yet successful and innovative fast food restaurant developed by Dick and Mac McDonald in San Bernardino, California, which Ray later acquired all the rights to, including the name, and built into the world’s largest restaurant business. While the story of the period covered in the film is not altogether accurate, based upon pre-release reports, it stops far short of the final chapter  of the story of the McDonald brothers. In the essay below, the complex relationship between the surviving brother, Dick McDonald, and the Corporation built by Ray Kroc is recounted by me, the retired McDonald’s executive who was at the center of all that. The authenticity of this report was verified by Fred Turner, the former McDonald’s senior chairman who succeeded Ray Kroc, when he called me with appreciation for getting it right in this unpublished story. He forwarded this essay to the manager of the McDonald’s Golden Archives with the hand-written note: “Save this gem.” It was a pleasure and an honor to have known Ray Kroc,  Dick McDonald and Fred Turner, and it was one of the most satisfying, if sometimes testing, challenges of my career in building public relationships to have become a friend to Mr. McDonald himself.




By Charles Ebeling




Presented to the Chicago Literary Club

At the Cliff Dwellers, Chicago, Illinois

October 26, 2009



Copyright 2009 by Charles Ebeling





The nineteen eighties and nineties were glory years for many American-based businesses. It was the golden age of globalization, Sarbanes-Oxley was not yet on the horizon, the tech bust was in the future, derivatives was not a dirty word, and the vast financial bailouts of late were in the far distance. Yet, with all that positive momentum underway, there were still some unfinished issues to reconcile from the rebirth of American consumerism in the aftermath of World War II. In the mid-eighties, I found myself smack in the middle of one such reconciliation.

Once, after visiting Thomas Jefferson’s cleverly-designed house at Monticello, with so many advanced innovations for its time in early American history, I was reminded of the now famous reference to his genius, by President John Kennedy, in remarks to North American Nobel Prize winners, when he said: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. “

I wish I’d thought of that quote, when I was writing out notes for my introduction of a special guest at a breakfast meeting the next day on August 22, 1989, on a stage at the Hyatt Regency Chicago Hotel, before a cosmopolitan audience of some 250 breakfast companions. That audience did not know what to expect, because almost none had ever met their special breakfast companion, though many knew bits of his legend, and they saw his surname everywhere they went. He had lived a quiet, private, retired life, totally out of the limelight, for some 30 years, since before most in the audience began their careers and before some were even born. With few fairly recent and notable exceptions, he had been largely invisible over these decades, which he hadn’t really minded at all, because he had long ago achieved his dream of becoming a millionaire and retiring by the time he was 50. After all, back in 1961, when he and his brother had sold their business for a cool million dollars each, after taxes, a million was like eight million today.

The morning’s audience members were to be public relations executives and communications managers from across the U.S. and around the globe. They were sophisticated people, accustomed to listening intently, crafting subtle and compelling business messages and communications campaigns, and then mass communicating this information to carefully targeted, culturally diverse groups of people.

Some of the older professionals in the morning group had met another much more recognizable person, whom they always knew to be the founder of the global company that brought them together. While the founder had been deceased for several years now, they knew his success story well. He had brought to fruition the potential of a new post World War II industry, one that would have an important role in facilitating the expanded mobility and everyday expectations of a modern, fast moving world. They knew about the enormous entrepreneurship and drive that the founder and his ardent disciples had demonstrated. He had made its economic engine into one of a handful of great global brands, and one of the most well-known and profitable giants among those bell weathers of the American economy, the Dow Jones 30 Industrials.

But this morning’s breakfast guest was more of a shadowy figure to them. If the great entrepreneur had been, say Thomas Edison, then this morning’s special breakfast guest might have been his Nikola Tesla. Tesla invented alternating current. Thomas Edison took that invention, which came from his junior associate Tesla’s creative mind, and built it into the dominant form of electric energy on which America runs to this day. Edison’s achievements ring loud through the annals of popular history. Those who dig deeper into the story also come to know Tesla’s.

This large breakfast gathering was to be an important part of an extended coming out party, unlike any Tesla ever received. While Tesla’s name faded into technical history, this man’s name, but not the man himself, had become known to almost everyone on earth, because he gave it, however inadvertently, to the best known and most pervasive food service organization the world has yet seen.

This morning’s event would be part of a process in which the name and the man would be reunited, over more than a decade of events that would bring a glow, and a bit of fire, to his remaining years. This was to be “Breakfast with Mr. McDonald. “


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, eyewitness 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.

I first met Dick in 1985, the year after Ray Kroc had died, and I would be his most frequent contact, and become his friend, at the business he’d given his name to, until his own death some 13 years later. There was a third of a century between our ages. I’d lost my own grandfather, himself a proud entrepreneurial retailer, a few years before. In some ways for me, as our relationship grew, Dick McDonald began to take my grandfather’s place.

The night before our high profile breakfast, my wife Vicki and I took Dick and Dot out for dinner at the elegant Club International at Chicago’s Drake Hotel. Ron and Pat Miesler joined us. Ron was a veteran McDonald’s vice president who had previously taken a film crew out to Bedford to record Dick’s reminiscences for posterity, as he had once done with Ray Kroc in his later years. That film is preserved in McDonald’s Golden Archives in Elk Grove, Illinois.

I’d told the maître de at the club who our special guest was to be, and after dinner the excited chef brought out a golden frosted cake with McDonald’s arches emblazoned on top. Dick was touched and clapped his hands in delight. He never expected to be treated so specially. It was only when one of his grandchildren or one of his correspondents prodded him about his anonymity that his New England pride would seep through. Dick, like many of his counterparts in the restaurant industry, enjoyed fine dining, and almost always ordered brandy Alexander’s for himself and Dot before dinner. We were to enjoy many excellent restaurants together, from coast to coast, as we traveled to events honoring him in the years ahead.

The breakfast the next day went swimmingly. On stage, Dick and I enjoyed our Egg McMuffins and coffee, as did those in the audience. I introduced him as one of the best conceivable friends and supporters that McDonald’s people could possibly have, as the audience settled down to some breakfast shop talk with the original Mr. McDonald. A brief video followed that included a new McDonald’s Founder’s Day TV commercial we’d produced specially to position the McDonald’s brother’s pioneering role in the so-called fast food industry and their creation and early success opening the first McDonald’s restaurant, along with the role of Ray Kroc in subsequently creating and building the worldwide restaurant company. Dick then earnestly answered my questions and those of audience members, giving everyone a new first-hand perspective on their roots. I later wrote him, saying “I’m glad that during your visit you were able to meet so many of the people here in “McDonaldland” who care about you – our people are uplifted by your positive personality and your optimistic point of view.”

Things hadn’t always been so rosy between Dick McDonald and the company, and the future road would also contain some big bumps. The trouble started almost from the beginning.

Dick and Mac McDonald had come out to California in the 1920s, seeking their fortunes. Their father had come over to New Hampshire from Cork County, Ireland, in the late 19th century. He worked for 40 years in a shoe factory, and was fired, as the Depression was rolling in. The sons resolved to move west, and never work for anyone again. They did work on a movie lot, before opening their own stand to sell orange juice and hot dogs to the crew. For a while they owned a movie theatre, and then in 1940 they opened a traditional carhop, barbecue drive-in in San Bernardino, an old railroad town beginning to grow. The restaurant was a hit, and was written up in trade magazines of its day. But after the war, business began to change and the brothers became restive.

They noted that customers were increasingly complaining about price and the relatively slow carhop service. As families began to grow and the post-war workforce had less time for lunch, the brothers began to devise a plan. Ultimately, they would trim their menu to what customers most frequently ordered – hamburgers, fries, drinks and shakes, so they could prepare and serve it fresh and fast. They would get rid of the barbecue pit, and the complexity of cooking a broad menu. They began to design a new more efficient kitchen layout, drawing the new floor plans in chalk on their tennis court. They would use disposable paper wraps and cups, so there would be no dishwashing. To serve customers more quickly, they’d eliminate the chatty carhops in their white boots and short skirts, and convert their service windows to customer walk-ups.

In 1948, they were pioneering the future of roadside food service. But, customers were slow to accept the new system. As Dick was to say later in Entrepreneur Magazine, “Our customers told us we were losing our minds, and said they would never patronize McDonald’s if they had to wait on themselves – especially if they were only going to be served hamburgers.” But the brothers were anticipating the market, and soon business exploded. He recounted, “The customers changed from teenagers to working class families, and women and their children became the backbone of our business.”

A restaurant in Long Beach copied their layout, so the brothers got the idea to franchise. They ran a national ad in American Restaurant Magazine in 1952, describing an opportunity to get in on “the most revolutionary development in the restaurant industry during the past 50 years.” A story in the same magazine described their operation, “turning out one million hamburgers and 160 tons of French fries a year from a 192-square-foot drive-in with just 18 employees.” They took on an agent, who signed on a dozen franchisees, of which eight built restaurants. Then the agent became ill and could not continue.

Enter Ray Kroc, who was selling milkshake Multi-mixers. The brothers bought eight for their one location. Kroc had to see for himself why this restaurant needed to mix so many milkshakes at one time. He ogled the busy restaurant and offered to grow the system, thinking mostly of how many Multi-mixers he might sell. The rest is the history of how he built a restaurant empire, not just an outlet for selling Multi-mixers. But that is another story.

Ray Kroc quickly realized that McDonald’s had to adapt to grow, and the brothers were slow to accept change and evolution in what they considered their near perfect system. The friction began, and by 1961, Kroc had completed a full buyout of the McDonald brothers. Kroc went on to build the world’s largest food service organization. Dick proudly displayed in his Bedford office a photocopy of a check for $2.7 million. If the McDonald’s had, however unlikely, been able to keep hold the ½% of sales by McDonald’s restaurants they had received prior to the buyout, their heirs might today have been bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars, a year.

Anyhow, the brothers happily and promptly retired, and soon after, Dick moved back to New Hampshire. They contemplated other new business ventures, including a Mexican restaurant concept and an economy motel chain they would have named “The Scotch Inn,” but Dick dropped the ideas when brother Mac died in 1971. In the late 90s, Dick McDonald sent me sketches he had made of two such concepts that never went forward. These and other personal correspondence, photos and materials I’ve accumulated relating to Dick McDonald will one day go to the McDonald’s Golden Archives, the company’s historical branch, which I named and which reported to me until my retirement.

The correspondence with Dick McDonald I’ve reviewed picks up in the 1980s. In the intervening years, Ray Kroc had little to do with the McDonald brothers, as they had parted on bad terms. In 1983, Dick wrote to Fred Turner, who had been Ray Kroc’s right hand man, and by then was heading up the company, enclosing a copy of his 1952 ad. In his note to Fred he said, “This ad was probably the opening shot that started the entire fast food business. We received letters and telegrams from all over the country asking for more information.”

Then in early 1984, Ray Kroc died. His passing was extensively covered in the press. A memorial ad, in fact drafted by me several years earlier when Kroc became quite ill, recognized Kroc as the founder of McDonald’s Corporation, which he was. However when Dick McDonald saw the memorial ad run in his hometown newspaper by the local McDonald’s franchisees, he was miffed, as the ad had not acknowledged the early pioneering of the McDonald brothers. He did not understand that it was a memorial ad to the memory of Ray Kroc, and wrote to Fred Turner, saying “I look back at the tremendous amount of time and effort Mac and I put into McDonald’s trying to get it off the ground, and then I read in my home town paper Ray Kroc started the whole thing, that is more than I can take. In view of the situation, I do not want any further relations with your company.” He had not noted that an article, which ran next to the ad in the same paper, put McDonald’s history into a more complete context.

A few weeks later, the Manchester Union Leader newspaper, which had interviewed Dick announced, “Reports that the founder of the McDonald’s fast food chain has died were greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have said.” The article went on, “yes, multimillionaire McDonald’s owner Ray Kroc died last weekend. Ray Kroc was not – as some reports called him – the founder.” Later in the article, Dick conceded that reports that described Kroc as the founder were the product of a McDonald’s publicity agent. “Ray Kroc never claimed to be the founder,” he asserted. Years later, Al Golin, Chairman of Golin/Harris, McDonald’s long-time PR firm, told me that the company was careful with the distinction. Al pointed out that Ray Kroc’s reputation as the Henry Ford of the fast food industry often led others to characterize him as the founder of McDonald’s, rather than the founder of the Corporation that bore McDonald’s name.

Once asked why he hadn’t changed the name of the restaurants to Kroc’s, Ray Kroc enjoined, “Who’d want to go to a restaurant called Kroc’s? McDonald’s is an All-American name.” Dick and Mac were themselves pleasantly surprised when the franchisee of the second McDonald’s, located in Phoenix, decided to retain their name on his road sign, which wasn’t required by his contract.

Dick never quite got used to people being confused about his identity. After all, it was Kroc who made McDonald a household name. Dick liked to tell the story of his grandson asking a neighbor’s kids if they’d like to meet the man who started McDonald’s. When he met the children, Dick said, “They had the most disappointed look in their eyes I had ever seen. They thought they were going to meet the clown, Ronald McDonald.”

In March of that year, Fred Turner wrote an open letter, widely distributed through the McDonald’s system, explaining in detail just what the early contributions of the McDonald’s brothers had been to the business. In his letter, he wrote, “Dick and Mac founded the original McDonald’s system. Ray Kroc founded the Corporation which developed, serviced and operated the McDonald’s system.”

But clearly, Dick McDonald’s well-justified New England pride occasionally slipped into bouts of hubris. In September, 1984, Dick was again on the warpath, when a news item appeared on CNN Business indicating that McDonald’s was planning to tear down an obsolete restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois that was described in the story as the first McDonald’s. In fact, it had been the first McDonald’s that Ray Kroc opened in 1955, after linking up with the McDonald brothers. Fast food fans had wanted to give it museum status as the first, which had attracted the press. An angry McDonald wrote Fred Turner, exclaiming, “This will be the last letter you will ever receive from me.” Turner quickly clarified the situation in the Chicago Tribune’s INC. column, saying, “It wasn’t No. 1 anyhow. The original McDonald’s was in California. The one in Des Plaines, which became the first this side of the Rockies, has gone through too much change to be saved for its historic significance.”

Ken Props, an early franchising executive with the corporation, reached out to McDonald, telling him the company had reversed its decision, and would restore the Des Plaines restaurant, located not far from company headquarters, to its original 1955 red and white tile, neon-lit glory. And with signage it would clearly indicate it was not the very first McDonald’s.

Later in 1984, Dick Starmann, who headed communications for McDonald’s, had developed an idea that would begin the healing with Dick McDonald. He and Ken Props visited Dick to discuss it with him. The company was coming up on the milestone of serving its 50 billionth hamburger, as determined by an algorithm used to update the “Billions Served” road signs outside most McDonald’s restaurants. The idea was that McDonald’s USA President Ed Rensi would personally grill the 50 billionth hamburger, a Quarter Pounder, using a symbolic golden spatula. This unique press event would take place in a hotel ballroom in New York City. Ed would then serve the 50 billionth burger to the man who had grilled the first one, Dick McDonald.

Dick, who had always considered himself the marketing wiz of the brothers, while Mac was the restaurant operations guru, loved the idea. Dick thought it was inspired to set up a McDonald’s grill in a hotel ballroom for the press, writing, “This will probably be the first time millions of people have actually seen a McDonald’s hamburger prepared.” The media event was staged as planned, with Dick McDonald as the star, and it received worldwide publicity. Dick later wrote Ed Rensi, to say the burgers sold sign, “was a gimmick my brother and I instituted way back in 1950. Customers seemed to get a kick watching the numbers change. We had a simulated thermometer painted on one of the windows and as the numbers grew our painter would up the count until we hit one million, when he painted an explosion at the top of the sign.” By the way, when McDonald’s signs hit the “100 Billion Sold” record some years later, we stopped counting, at least publically.

The 50 billionth hamburger, minus one bite, was sealed into a silver-plated replica of a McDonald’s hamburger and presented to Dick. When I spotted it on his home desk on a visit to his house several years later, he told me the story of his grandson playing with it, and one day accidentally opening it. The boy showed Dick the shriveled remnant of that record-setting hamburger, and promptly threw it away.

In late December 1984, Dick Starmann wrote McDonald saying, “Well – I’ve finally been able to confirm that everyone on the communications department staff here in Oak Brook knows of McDonald’s early history and your pivotal and significant contributions to that story.” He attached signed and notarized affidavits from every member of his department attesting to the fact that they knew the real story. All was forgiven, for now.

I had been a public relations consultant to McDonald’s through much of the 1970s, and then in early 1985, I joined the company staff, heading corporate communications. One of the first extra assignments given me by Dick Starmann, was to represent the company in building the budding new relationship with Dick McDonald. Soon thereafter I visited McDonald at his home, and we began a regular correspondence by letter and phone. I kept him updated on company news, sending him copies of publications and articles and videos. He loved the milestones of international growth, and was particularly impressed with the opening of the Russian market in Moscow and later, in China. He avidly followed new products, and often visited “his” local McDonald’s in Bedford, owned by franchisee Ron Evans.

As for Dick’s own menu preferences, he did not consider himself much of a hamburger man, though he thought McDonald’s had done a good job using lean beef and preparing its hamburgers with consistency through the years. Personally he had long preferred to eat hot dogs. One day, at the Bedford McDonald’s I noticed him ordering a McChicken sandwich before a media interview, which he unflinchingly admitted was his favorite McDonald’s product to date.

Dick seemed to be set off when beset by people who needled him about his low profile with McDonald’s. He wrote Fred Turner in 1986, complaining that a friend from San Bernardino had called him, saying he had decided to drive to Oak Brook while in Chicago, to see McDonald’s head offices. Dick said, “He told me he saw streets named after officials but nothing pertaining to the McDonald’s Brothers. He said he even saw a street named after the clown, so my rating must be even lower than the clown’s.” Turner sardonically wrote back, “Dick: Got your note and apparently your “friend” missed one of the street signs, as he missed the fact that the Home Office at the Plaza is located on McDonald’s Drive. Please ask him where the hell he thinks Ronald got his last name. Warm regards, Fred.”

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.

The next year, following rounds of print and TV media interviews at his home back in Bedford, was our milestone Breakfast with Mr. McDonald at our Worldwide Communications Conference. We thanked him for being “a master storyteller.” He wrote back saying, “We are truly grateful for the manner in which we were treated by everyone at the Conference. In fact, we were overwhelmed.”

McDonald’s opened its 10,000th restaurant in late 1988, just outside of Washington, D.C. Dick was unable to attend, but in Fred Turner’s dedication of that milestone location, he opened his remarks, saying, “Mac and Dick McDonald did the original design, Ray Kroc provided the foundation.” In fact, Dick McDonald had designed the original arches, to give his modest California store some height and to make it visible from the street. His building design evolved into the company’s current logo.

In 1988, my associate Chuck Rubner and I had another idea for Dick. We had decided that the company’s annual report to shareholders would feature a story about the company’s guiding principles as its theme. Those principles include a dedication to quality, service, cleanliness and value. We invited people we thought could well address each tenet to write short essays for the report. Columnist George Will wrote on quality. Stanley Marcus, of department store fame, wrote on customer service, Fred Rogers of PBS fame, wrote on cleanliness, and we invited Dick McDonald to write about value. We offered each writer a $2500 donation in their name to a children’s charity of their choice. Dick selected Ronald McDonald House Charities, a cause he would support many times over the years with personal contributions.

Dick’s page on value appeared in the annual report, along with his photo and a short story about the brother’s pioneering work. He wrote of their early commitment to “highest quality food at low prices, including 15-cent hamburgers, 10-cent fries and 10-cent Cokes. When I go to McDonald’s today,” he said, “and factor in the inflation, McDonald’s still gives that kind of value,” he concluded. Dick and Dot were special guests at the stockholder’s meeting in Oak Brook in 1988. He sat in on the Board meeting, and was introduced to the shareholders, where he spoke briefly. Dick, then 79, wrote of enjoying “all the boys and girls at the meeting,” and liked touring the headquarters campus, which he described as “resort like.”

In 1990, Dick wrote us on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of when he and Mac opened their first McDonald’s, the barbecue, carhop version, in 1940. He recalled trying to get a contractor to put up a building without any collateral. “The first day we opened, I remember my brother saying he hoped the first couple of customers didn’t want to pay with 20 dollar bills, or we would have been out of business, we were so short of cash. Many years later I recall Harry Sonneborn, the first McDonald’s president, making the remark that nothing grows without the first seed and that the McDonald brothers planted that first seed,” Dick concluded. “I never forget that remark by Harry as it made me feel that the brothers did have some role in the success that followed.”

But in 1991, storm clouds were brewing again. The year opened with a nice letter from Dick, in February, indicating, “We are still kicking back here. No big news to tell. All conversation is about the war in the Persian Gulf.” He commented that he had liked the videotape of the Moscow opening the previous year, as he liked to show these to his friends and grandsons. He wondered if the China opening got a “big play.” I replied that the Shenzhen restaurant indeed had, nearly breaking the Moscow opening day record with a volume of 30 thousand customers, and I forwarded him a video of it that I’d just received from Jim Cantalupo, President of the International division. I told Dick I’d just heard he’d be a special guest at an area McDonald’s anniversary celebration. I mentioned that we’d just been skiing with a friend and pioneering Chicago area McDonald’s franchise owner, Ken Norgan. Dick always liked to hear stories about interesting travel.

All hell broke loose in August, when I heard from a Wall Street Journal reporter who called for background information on Dick. She indicated she’d be doing an interview with him for a historical feature profile that would appear in a few weeks. Dick and I had developed a mutual system in which if either of us were contacted by the media regarding his history with McDonald’s, we would talk and coordinate. We were on the same page now, or so I thought, as we had agreed there should be no surprises. I mentioned to Dick that I’d be happy to come out to Manchester, where the interview was scheduled at a McDonald’s restaurant, to help with any questions on the company. The reporter soon called me back to say she did not want me at the interview, and she’d handle everything with Dick. I called Dick after the interview and he said it was all very positive and he’d answered the usual questions about the early days. He said there were no “tough” questions. Despite his feedback, I had a hunch and notified top management of my concern.

On August 15, the time bomb went off, with a full front page center column, 24 paragraph feature story in the Journal under the headline, “McDonald’s Pickle: He Began Fast Food But Gets No Credit.” The subhead called out, “History According to Kroc Irks Dick McDonald, Who Rid the World of Carhops.” The crux of the article was that Dick had just received a McDonald’s house organ the preceding week that touted the company’s annual “Founder’s Day” tribute to Ray Kroc. The reporter said Dick “loathes this annual rite, usually tied to a splashy nationwide television ad campaign.” Dick was quoted saying, “It really burns the hell out of me.” Later in the story, McDonald said, “Up until the time we sold, there was no mention of Kroc being the founder. If we had heard about it, he would have been back selling milk shake machines.” Now, he said, the company history begins in 1955, “and everything before that is wiped out.”

Ouch! We thought we’d cleared the air on that with Dick, over and over again. Even the Journal, which had pushed him on the founder issue, gave the company some grudging credit. They printed, “McDonald’s Corp hasn’t entirely expunged the McDonald’s bothers from company lore. Charles Ebeling, director of communications, calls Mr. McDonald ‘the pioneer – part of our living history’. Mr. Ebeling also cites all the ceremonial occasions to which Mr. McDonald has been invited, such as one marking the sale of the 50 billionth burger. And he provides company histories that mention Mr. Kroc’s fascination with what the McDonald’s brothers were cooking up. In Kroc’s words: ‘I thought I’d go see for myself, So I booked my 52-year-old bones onto a red-eye special and flew west to meet my future.’ “The article went on, “Still, Mr. Ebeling stresses, ‘Ray Kroc was the founder of the corporation, the guy who grew the business.’ Conceding an irony that still irks Mr. McDonald, he adds: ‘Ray Kroc doesn’t have his name on the door. Yet Dick McDonald – whose name is a household word – well, many people don’t realize there is a real McDonald.’ “

“Whose fault is that?” the Journal asks. “Mr. McDonald wonders,” they went on. I briefly wondered about my job security. A letter from a friend two days later said, “Chuck: Congratulations on making the front page of the Journal. After years and years of reading that newspaper, I can finally say I know someone who made the front page.” I wasn’t amused.

There were different strategies put forth to respond to the Journal story, but the more direct ones were rejected by the company. Al Golin, head of McDonald’s PR firm, had drafted a passionate defense of Kroc as a letter to the editor. It concluded, “Dick McDonald made the decision to sell his company at a time when, by his own admission, he didn’t have the desire or ambition to expand any further. I don’t think anyone at McDonald’s would diminish Dick’s original concept – and I hope he can sit back and enjoy the satisfaction of having his name a household word throughout the world. When a baby is left on a doorstep of a home – the true father is the one who raised and educated that baby to maturity. The McDonald’s Restaurant’s father is Ray Kroc.” I had lunch with Al recently, and he said he withdrew the letter before it could be published, out of empathy for Dick McDonald.

The same day, Fred Turner got a long letter from Dick, who wrote, “After the Journal article came out, my phone never stopped ringing with calls from all over the country. I have always tried to be courteous to everyone but I’m 82 years old and this is too much. After I talked with Chuck Ebeling the following day, I took my phone off the hook. Chuck was quite concerned that the media would try to start a controversy between the company and me.”

I had good reason to be concerned, and so did McDonald, because the media onslaught was on. As the letter to Turner continued, Dick worked up his pride, saying, and “My 2 grandsons are starting to have arguments with other students about who was the real founder of McDonald’s. They are just starting high school, and I would be a lousy grandfather if I let that happen. Fred, I will spend whatever amount of money necessary to prove to the public that the McDonald brothers, not Ray Kroc, were the real founders of McDonald’s. P.S. This will be the first time the kids have seen this old, stubborn Irishman in action and I will try to make them proud of me.”

A week later, he wrote again, describing how several McDonald’s franchisees had called him, defending the contributions of Ray Kroc to their success. He complained about how few franchisees had ever called or written to him.

Dick had a special place in his heart for two McDonald’s people who treated him royally. One was regional VP Jeff Schwartz of Phoenix, who had come east to visit him in Bedford. Dick and Dot loved to vacation at the Arizona Biltmore. Jeff picked them up there one day, and took them to the office, where a hundred employees and franchises were gathered to surprise and fete them. Another was Sam Joseph, a long-time executive in McDonald’s Toronto office, who hosted the McDonald’s many times at their offices and at his home, and who introduced them to Canadian McDonald’s President George Cohon, whom also befriended him.

The McDonald’s David and Goliath story was catnip for the news media. Dick’s hometown paper, the Union Leader, ran an empathetic story under a large photo of Dick leaning on the Golden Arches, with the headline, “McDonald’s namesake – Neither a Clown Nor a Kroc.” Dick wrote me in November saying, “received 3 phone calls from CNN for an interview. They wanted me to come to New York. They seemed miffed when I said they’d have to come to New Hampshire, informing me this would be an opportunity to be heard all over the world. At my age of 82, being heard on CNN is not high on my list of priorities.”

Fred Turner called me up to his office one day, saying he wanted to phone Dick McDonald and discuss the article and the letter and the issues. It started out politely enough, but Fred grew frustrated with Dick’s continuing insistence on the founder issue. Too may people were urging him to come out from Ray Kroc’s shadow. It soon turned into a yelling match on the speakerphone, and I watched as the admin staff bailed out of the open-office executive area. The next day, Fred called me back, and said his wife Patty had been at him all night for exploding on the elderly man. Fred said to me, “Just sit here and listen while I call him back to apologize.” I did, and he did.

A new letter soon arrived in Fred’s inbox. Dick said, “First of all I deeply regret our discussion ended up in a bad shouting match. After years of knowing me, I am sure you are aware that I do have a short fuse. However, Fred, you are not a milk toast either. Dot has been working on me for years but I am afraid I am not 100% yet. There is one thing I want you to know. Whatever arguments we may have, I have always had a tremendous amount of respect for you and will continue to have.”

The media coverage of the falling-out went on for weeks, and gave Dick McDonald the public platform to tell his version of the McDonald’s story he’d been wanting for years. When the company celebrated its Founder’s Day in 1991, there was a new message, and a new TV commercial. A Reuters News report summed it up thusly — “In television ads that hit the airwaves Thursday, McDonald’s Corp. paid tribute to the chain’s original founders, one of whom complained about being ignored in the past. The ads marking the firm’s annual “founder’s day” promotions feature employees holding candles while a voice intones ‘It began as a spark from Dick and Mac McDonald and with the guiding light of Ray Kroc it became a flame.’ ” Chicago’s Leo Burnett ad agency created that wound-healing commercial.

A TV program out of Boston, one of dozens that covered the story, interviewed Dick. The program’s host began with this succinct background, “Every would-be entrepreneur in America knows the story of Ray Kroc, probably by heart. His was one of the greatest American success stories, the man who found the pot of gold at the end of the golden arches. But, contrary to what everyone thinks, it was not Ray Kroc who cooked up McDonald’s. In the beginning, it was the idea of two brothers named Dick and Mac, the true inventors of fast food.”

Charles Osgood, in his Osgood File network radio report, had this to say, “His name is on 12, 141 fast food places — the ones with the golden arches. It was Richard McDonald who first sketched those arches for the place he and his brother ran in San Bernardino, California. They were on to something, to say the least. Kroc and the McDonald brothers had a falling out. They acknowledged that Kroc built the empire but resented that he called himself the founder of McDonald’s. With both Kroc and Mac McDonald dead, now the company in its ads credits both the brothers and Kroc. They plan to erect a plaque at the sight of the first McDonald’s in San Bernardino. That makes Richard feel better about everything.”

A plaque indeed! For quite a while I had been in touch with a community organization called the San Bernardino Light Opera Company. They put on semi-professional plays and musicals at the downtown theatre, and owned a building around the corner they used as a wardrobe center on the sight of Dick and Mac McDonald’s original drive-in restaurant. The restaurant was long gone, but the base of the old road sign was there. Fred Turner had been interested in trying to find the red and white tiles from the original store, to have for some possible future historic reconstruction, and had regional manager Bill Marble and his staff doing detective work to track them down.

Along the way, a new idea emerged. We would help the Light Opera Company restore the road sign, identifying it as the location of the Light Opera, but also with a disk at the top that said, “Historic Site of the Original McDonald’s.” We would place and dedicate a large brass plaque at the base of the sign, and it would say, under the original McDonald’s Speedee logo, “Dick and Mac McDonald opened the world’s first McDonald’s Self-Service, Drive-In Restaurant on this site in San Bernardino, California, December, 1948. They previously operated a successful Drive-In barbecue Restaurant with Carhop Service on this site from 1940 to 1948.”

Our special guests for the dedication on January 17, 1992, would be none other than Dick and Dot McDonald, their son Gale French and the two grandsons. We worked with city officials and the Light Opera Company to make it a gala. Local print ads invited the public. Dick McDonald would receive the keys to the city from the mayor at the unveiling, and there would be speeches from the McDonald’s Regional VP, Bill Marble, and other officials. Dick, Dot and the grand children would cut the ribbon with Ronald McDonald as the TV cameras rolled. There was a special performance of the Light Opera in Dick’s honor the night before, and a special reception for his old carhops and former employees and suppliers after the dedication. One letter came in from a 75-year old Carnation Ice Cream employee who had been on loan to the McDonald brothers for their original opening night. He wrote, “My boss was also there and furnished a couple of quarts of bourbon (hidden in the store room) which we nipped on during the evening. Frankly, as I remember, the customer traffic was not booming, but it was fun.”

More than 400 people turned out for the rededication event. At the opening, Dick said, “This is where Mac and I started it all, and it’s like coming home for me.” Bill Marble added, “Dick and Mac and Ray were all founders, and McDonald’s success today is rooted in the work of all three.”

The San Bernardino Sun newspaper led with the headline, “McDonald Got a Break Today, “and reported, “The oldest dispute haunting the world’s largest hamburger chain was settled here Friday when the McDonald’s Corporation recognized 1398 N. E Street as its birthplace. Richard McDonald, the surviving founder of the fast-food chain, and officials of the Oak Brook, Illinois based company declared the controversy over with the unveiling of a plaque set in concrete. ‘I think it’s fantastic’, Mr. McDonald said, ’I’m so appreciative of the company for doing this.’ ” A note I received from Dick afterwards said, “All of us had a wonderful time. For the kids, it was the trip of a lifetime.”

That was the end of our trials and tribulations over who had started McDonald’s. But it was not the end of the fun with and for Dick McDonald. He played an important role in a Smithsonian World PBS special called “A Moveable Feast,” produced by Linda Ellerbee and written and narrated by Lloyd Dobyns. It featured a review of the nation’s dining traditions, ranging from Fred Harvey and his eateries along the Santa Fe Railroad, to New York’s 21 Club and California’s Chez Panise, along with the Father of Fast Food. I accompanied Dick to the premiere at the Smithsonian Castle in Washington DC.   We visited Dick’s senator and toured Congress, dining on Navy bean soup at the Senate dining room, where senators and their aides besieged Dick for autographs.

I visited Dick in Bedford in 1994. A major reconstruction had just been completed at the Manchester Airport, and Dick insisted on meeting us on arrival, although he was in a frail condition. He had a neighbor drive and as I walked into the main lobby, and glanced over to the new, state-of-the-art McDonald’s restaurant there, I noticed a tall, gray figure in a trench-coat, slightly stooped, wandering through, and glancing up at the multi-colored neon signage. He looked very out of place, until he turned in my direction, and said, “Hello Chuck.” Indeed, it was Dick McDonald.

In 1995, Dick wrote to McDonald’s Chairman/CEO and fellow Irishman Mike Quinlan, commenting, “It’s amazing how the years pass. I am now 86 years old but fortunately in good health. It is hard to kill the Irish. I vividly recall the days of the old LaSalle-Wacker headquarters building. One day Mac and I were having a meeting there with Ray and Harry. I remember Ray predicting that some day there would be more than 500 McDonald’s units. Give my best to the gang.” Today, in 2009, there are more than 32,000 McDonald’s around the globe.

Richard Threlkeld of CBS News drove up to New Hampshire to do a segment with Dick. Threlkeld wrote him afterwards to say, “I’m still dining out on the story you told about after you let the carhops go and shifted to self-service, you had the employees park in the customer’s slots to make the place look busy.”

The next year, Dick McDonald wrote to congratulate the company on the launch of the ill-fated Arch Deluxe sandwich in a gala at the Radio City Music Hall. “The introduction was really spectacular. Please tell Mike and Ed they did a fine job…and also looked very dapper.”

David Halberstam, interviewed Dick at his home for his book, “The Fifties.” Dick enjoyed being a critic, chiding Halberstam for characterizing him and his brother as failures prior to going to California. He pointed out that he was “only 17 when I went to California, so I must have been 15 or 16 during the ‘failed’ ventures on page 155 in your book.” In his letter to me about the book, Dick said, “Halberstam is probably correct when he states the McDonald Brothers floundered a lot. I am still floundering but manage to flounder to the bank once in a while.” Dick and Fred Turner appeared in the TV series based on the book, in a segment called “The Road to the Sixties.”

Asked what most pleased him about what McDonald’s had become, Dick replied, “What I’m most proud of is that McDonald’s must employ millions of youngsters, and I’ll bet it’s kept a lot of them out of trouble.”

Dick wrote me in 1996 to tell of the time the Carnation Company brought President Nixon’s brother by to see their new self-service concept in San Bernardino, as he was considering a franchise. He seemed tickled to recount that Nixon was not impressed, saying that people wanted car service and thought the idea had no merit.

In 1997, Dick wrote a note to McDonald’s Customer Relations supervisor, Beth Peterson, thanking her for sending along some Beanie Babies for his niece, which he had asked me about. He wrote, “It was great of Chuck to come to my rescue, but that is the way he is. P.S. I’m sure you know that Dick Starmann and Chuck have been two of my closest friends for many years.” I was touched by his comments when Beth gave me the note.

In June of 1998, Dick mailed me drawings he’d had commissioned of two fanciful restaurant concepts he’d long had in mind. He commented that back in San Bernardino he and Mac had many requests for tacos and other Mexican fare, but didn’t do so because of their limited menu concept. His Mexican concept was the Gold Sombrero restaurant, and his other idea was The Giant Orange, designed to serve pitchers of fresh orange juice to tourists leaving the Mohave Desert. Dick said Dot’s reaction to his ideas was that he drink a glass of warm milk and take a nap.

Just a month later, Dick passed away quietly. I had drafted his obituary a few years earlier, and it now appeared prominently around the world. He would have liked that.

Dick liked to send me jokes and cartoons about McDonald’s. One I still have shows two angels looking up at giant Golden Arches in the clouds, saying, “I always thought the heavenly gates would be pearly, not golden.”

I don’t know the whole story about his wishes. He had no funeral. However, in researching this story, I ran across a website I’d never known, called And there he is, alongside Dot, in a mausoleum in Calvary Cemetery in Manchester, and above their names and dates, in large dignified script against a mahogany background, are the words, “Founder of McDonald’s,” next to a bright rendering of the Golden Arches.

On a hunch, I searched the same website for Ray Kroc, and found a photo of his grave marker in California, where the inscription simply reads, “Ray A. Kroc, 1902-1984.”

In the year 2000, Time and CBS cooperated in producing a book on, “the 100 men and women who shaped the last one hundred years.” Chef Jacques Pepin interviewed me for the profile of Ray Kroc. He concluded his piece, writing, “Like many of America’s great entrepreneurs, Kroc was not a creator…for he had the cunning ability to grasp a concept with all its complexities and implement it in the best possible way. And that’s as American as a cheeseburger.”

As Kroc liked to say, “None of us is as good as all of us.”

Rest in piece, Mr. Kroc — and Mr. McDonald.



Chuck Ebeling is a public relations man who invested more than half of his career, some 22 years, managing the reputation of McDonald’s Corporation. He held virtually every job in directing internal and external communications for McDonald’s, first with their long-time public relations agency, Golin/Harris Communications, and then as director of corporate communications with the corporation. He retired on the cusp of the Millennium as a vice president and chief spokesperson for McDonald’s.


Giving permission for McDonald’s restaurants to appear in films had been part of my job description for a long time, but when producer Roger Weisberg, who I’d worked with before, approached me on this one, I had to pause. They not only wanted to film at the Museum McDonald’s in Des Plaines, IL, the recreation of Ray Kroc’s first quick service hamburgers and fries restaurant of 1955, but they wanted someone for the controversial host of the film to interview there. I knew this one would be trouble, but I was intrigued, as the host would be Andrei Codrescu, a colorful Transylvanian poet who was burning up the airwaves on National Public Radio  as a social critic of all things American. But I was a fan of his show, and his oblique sense of humor, and I knew that Roger, and hopefully Andrei, had a soft spot for McDonald’s.

The premise of his documentary film, which was being produced for commercial distribution in movie houses, at least on the arts circuit, was that Andrei, who had never before driven a car, would travel from the east coast to the west, driving a 1968 red Cadillac convertible, producing a sort of “On The Road of the 90s” film of his colorful encounters with icons of popular American culture. I volunteered to do the interview with Andrei at Ray Kroc’s 1955 McDonald’s, but told almost no one in management as I was pretty sure Andrei’s controversial take on American culture would not sit easily with the keepers of our conservative corporate culture..So I donned my paper crew hat of the era, straightened my tie and walked onto the set of my first commercial film. When the movie came out, I think in 1993 or so, Vicki and I took our young  niece and nephew with us to see it at a theatre in Evanston. We just told them it would have something to do with McDonald’s. When the McDonald’s segment came up, my niece Amanda exclaimed, “It’s uncle Chuck.” The film, Road Scholar, while winner of a prestigious Peabody Award, only attracted a limited audience, probably mostly hip college students and quirky NPR fans. Around the same time, Road Scholar was produced as a book, with the subtitle “Coast to Coast late in the century.”  Following is the McDonald’s segment from the book (click on title), in which I’m quoted from the film.

Road Scholar

The First McDonald’s PROOF of the power of dreams: Ray Kroc, one man with a single idea, a rounded idee fixe called a hamburger, began to dream an empire and, lo and behold, one day the entire planet is covered by the mighty waves of his single thought…If anybody’s going to get to heaven it’s Mr. Kroc on a ladder of billions of burgers, the number that most approached infinity. Next to rock ‘n’ roll, McDonald’s is the most enduring American creation of the second half of the twentieth century. They are chomping them down in Moscow, Beijing, Des Moines, wearing them in Poughkeepsie and Frankfort…(sing this) CHUCK, a company official, speaking of First McDonald’s (now a museum): This is the only early McDonald’s restaurant that’s been preserved exactly as it opened April 15, 1955. And these days the students who come through Hamburger University over at our McDonald’s campus nearby come over to get a little feeling for the culture. It’s really a cultural experience. It’s a chance to see, touch and feel what McDonald was like at the beginning. .Now we’ve got for you an official McDonald’s crew hat here just as was worn in the fifties. And we make you an honorary crew person. AC: (Pointing to life size replica of early McDonald’s employee) .I could look like him; he’s tall. A hamburger-deficient diet during my childhood in Transylvania must have stunted my growth. Eighty-five billion burgers sold vs. 250 million Americans equals 340 burgers per American…that works out to four extra inches per American versus your average Romanian.

CHUCK; We used to talk about hamburgers in terms of if we stack them all up it would be a stack that would reach the moon and back 16 times. But I think we have gone quite a way beyond that. So we haven’t related it to any more planets lately.

As Chuck and AC converse:, Ray Kroc’s voice is heard beyond the grave: Transfer your fears into faith. Any you will inherit the freedom of the future. And f you believe in it – and believe in it hard – it is impossible to fail.

And now there is the McLean Deluxe, a skinnier version of the Big Mac for the fat-conscious American of the end of the Millennium. McDonald’s has so penetrated out national consciousness we even have McPoems now, which are poems mass-produced  in writing workshops at universities. And McTests, McThoughts, McReactions, McFeelings, and so on.

No meat eater myself, I watch the vast fields of wheat that end up between Mr. Kroc’s buns and the immense lowing herds that lay down  their lives for Big Mac. I can see too the intense flows of these  commodities through the banks and the money markets — the rivers of commerce paralleling  the rivers of wheat and meat, like mind and body.

In the novel The Pit by Frank Norris, a madman tries to corner the wheat market. Like Napoleon he is filled with dreams of glory. Every leaf of bread on earth will be stamped with his name. Alas! The drought he prays for does not come. Instead, there is a plentiful harvest. The earth, which rarely sympathizes with the dreams of Napoleons, buries him in wheat. All his plans go awry. The peasants of Europe are starving, and the wheat he has been hoarding spills over the shores of America and feeds them. The Midwest harbors such dreams occasionally. It must be the immensity of her plains that allows imperial daydreams to roll unimpeded.

Fred had just observed his 80th birthday, and had served for nearly a decade as Chairman Emeritus of McDonald’s Corporation, the world’s largest restaurant company and a Dow Jones 30 Industrial. He began his McCareer as one of entrepreneur Ray Kroc’s first employees, as a grill man.

Over the years he developed the operating system (Quality, Service and Cleanliness) that made McDonald’s famous. He kept a low profile outside the company, but was a lion to those inside the 34 thousand restaurant organization — employees, franchises and suppliers — which he called the three-legged stool upon which McDonald’s stood. Fred created the training system that introduced millions of employees to the world of responsible work. Hamburger Universities and their home campus, the Fred L. Turner Training Center (which I named) in Oak Brook, IL, are taken very seriously by the generations of managers who are graduates. I hold a Bachelor of Hamburgerology degree, 1985.

I wrote about Fred, as well as fellow business legends,Dick McDonald and Ray Kroc, in my essay for the Chicago Literary Club, “Breakfast With Mr. McDonald.” You can Google it, or go to and search under Ebeling. Fred was a wonderfully irascible character.

When Rodney King was dragged from his vehicle and mercilessly beat by south LA police in 1992, he triggered riots that tore apart that area of the city. King will be remembered for his plaintive admonition in the wake of the riots, “Can we all get along?”

One of the few positive things to take away from those horrible riots was the value of proactive community relations, as had been practiced by the minority entrepreneurs who owned the five McDonald’s restaurants in the riot and fire zone, which escaped unscathed, because those franchisees followed Ray Kroc‘s adage to give back to the communities they served, and put regular deposits of goodwill into the “trust bank” of social investing that McDonald’s has long followed.

I was director of corporate communications for McDonald’s in the 80s and 90s, and we told and retold the LA riots survival story to company employees and franchisees around the world. The philosophy survives today, just as those five restaurants did in 1992. Here’s the story:

In the area of South Central LA, a five square miles radius of devastation, the outcome was like a bomb. It resembled Nagasaki. Buildings had been looted and set alight. It was martial law.  The streets were dangerous. Many people were killed in the frenzy, either as a statement of opposition between the established powers and the disenfranchised or as a gateway for much deeper held sentiments regarding race, class, poverty, and divisions between the entitled and disentitled.

In the wasted landscape of South Central LA, everything had been destroyed. Everything except for five buildings. In the post-apocalyptic aftermath, surrounded by smoldering ruins and debris, there were five buildings which had been untouched. Not a broken window. Not a slash of spray paint.  All flooded in their usual operable fluoro lights.

These five buildings all had one thing in common. They were all McDonalds.

‘When the smoke cleared after the mobs burned through South Central Los Angeles in April, hundreds of businesses, many of them black owned, had been destroyed. Yet not a single McDonald’s restaurant had been torched.’

Edwin M. Reingold, June 29, 1992, TIME

Months later, Sociologists at Stanford University came aross this data. They were also intrigued. They sent teams into the field some time later. They went in to interview many involved in the riots.  They went in to discover what the story was here – not why the devastation had taken place, but why they hadn’t taken place at McDonalds.

Now it must be said, these were not the crème de la crème of society. They organized meetings and interviews with those who had pulled people out of cars and beaten them to death. When asked why McDonalds was spared, the answers were unanimous across all the interview centres. The general conversation went something like this.

“They are one of us.”

“What do you mean?”

“They ‘re looking after us.”

‘How could McDonalds ‘be looking after you’?

“Because we like to play basketball. There’s nothing else to do except get high and shit. McDonald gives us balls.”

It turned out that McDonalds had in fact supplied a number of basketballs to youth groups and basketball centres in these low socio-economic areas. Not thousand of balls. A few hundred.

“And the old men. My old man. They don’t have jobs or nothin. They don’t have nowher eto live. McDonalds gives them free coffee.”

It was true. In that area, McDonalds suppied several hundred free cups of coffee each morning. In terms of its profitability, a piss in the ocean,


In a purely commercial sense, McDonalds gained years over Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, and every other fast food restaurant in the area that was razed to the ground. Each had to undertake major rebuilds and ascertain their strategic direction to decide whether South Central LA would be part of the strategic plan.

Even today, Tesco the supermarket leader of the UK is launching a ‘grocery gap’ stores in the same aea. Most of the old stores have disappeared. Wal-Mart fears to tread due to union barriers. Residents suffer lack of renewed investment.

Emotionally, financially and psychologically, McDonalds’ competitive advantage after the LA iots was vast. Lest we forget.  Marketing is not about producing advertisements. It’s the battle for the heart and mind of the consumer.

I met George Romney not long after the 1987 President’s Volunteer Action Award went to McDonald’s Ronald McDonald House program, a network of homes away from home near children’s hospitals,  to assist families of seriously ill children, and staffed and supported by teams of volunteers. McDonald’s president went to the White House to receive the award from President Reagan and George Romney, founder and chairman of Volunteer, the nation’s leading volunteerism organization, later merged in the Bush’s Points of Light Foundation.

Romney senior scheduled a trip out to McDonald’s headquarters in the fall of 1987, to meet with our president, Ed Rensi, with my boss Dick Starmann and myself to “discuss possible volunteer programs you could build onto your Ronald McDonald presidential award-winning program.” Before Romney’s arrival, and he drove his own car from Detroit to Oak Brook, IL, for the meeting, I briefed Ed on his visitor. Romney was a long-standing McDonald’s fan, and company founder Ray Kroc had personally presented him with “a gold McDonald’s pass for free product” many years before. In the interim, Romney had become chairman of American Motors, Governor of Michigan, and then Secretary of Housing and urban Development under Nixon.

Over lunch at the McDonald’s Lodge, Romney assured Rensi, ” when you build a corporate public image, you help build sales.” McDonald’s discussed creating special restaurant tray liners for National Volunteer Week, the following April, as well as other supporting activities.

Romney, once a Presidential contender himself, had lost momentum to Nixon when after a briefing trip to Vietnam, he alluded to the “brainwashing” he’d received from the generals, and disavowed the war. Romney had been one of the first to resign the Nixon cabinet and distance himself from the emerging Watergate scandal.

When we met him, he was 80 years old, “but walks 8 to 12 miles a day and looks 25 years younger,” I reflected in my briefing memo. Few alive remember that in World War II, Romney was the chief spokesperson for the U.S. auto industry. Just yesterday, Mitt Romney‘s older brother recalled that Mitt was known as a boy for his amazing ability to make realistic auto sounds. With his  automotive history, no wonder George was a fan of McDonald’s drive-in restaurants.

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 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.

I met noted poet Andrei Codrescu in the early 90s, as he drove his high-finned Cadillac convertible onto the lot of Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s drive-in restaurant, now a company museum, in Des Plaines, IL. I guessed he was properly impressed, because he was to write in his book, “Road Scholar — coast to coast late in the century”, a commentary on his visit, including the conclusion, “Next to rock “n” roll, McDonald’s is the most enduring American creation of the second half of the twentieth century.”

Of course, being the cultural critic he continues to be today, nearly two decades after releasing the Peabody Award-winning filmed version of his book both in theaters and on PBS, as he interviews me ( I was then heading corporate communications for McDonald’s) wearing our vintage paper McDonald’s “crew” hats,  Codrescu observes that the immensity of the Midwest plains, “allows imperial daydreams to roll unimpeded.”  Was he trans-mutating the agricultural abundance of middle America with  Ray Kroc’s hopes and vision for the growth of McDonald’s? I suppose so. Sort of thing a displaced Transylvanian might do.

The following is from the poet’s website,

Road Scholar: coast to coast late in the centuryHyperion, 1993Andrei Codrescu describes his coast-to-coast journey across the United States, discussing the beatniks, ex-hippies, and poets in New York’s East Village, a drive-through wedding in Las Vegas and other oddities. Inspired by Kerouac’s legendary paean to American wanderlust, On the Road, Codrescu sets out to discover for himself the wonders of the USA. Published to tie in with its companion PBS-TV special, the book sparkles with the author’s wit and sardonic humor. 60 photos.
Click here to order this Hardcover from Signed editions available from the author. Please email Andrei for more information.
March 2023

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,946 other subscribers