Ray Kroc turned a hamburger stand in the California desert into a fast-food empire that changed the way Americans eat. Less is known about his wife, a dashing piano player named Joan whose life was arguably every bit as cinematic.

Joan Kroc took control of her husband’s $3 billion McDonald’s fortune after his death in 1984. As chronicled in Lisa Napoli’s biography “Ray & Joan,” she oversaw the San Diego Padres, ran with her own rat pack, gambled prolifically, and ferried zoo animals on her private plane.

Impoverished as a child, she also became one of America’s great philanthropists.

She produced activist films, books, and music and supported causes that might have given her Republican husband heartburn: nuclear disarmament, AIDS research, environmental causes, the Democratic Party.

Joan Kroc, in San Diego in 1984, gave away her vast fortune.

Lenny Ignelzi/A.P.

She gave money to the widow of a gunman whose 1984 rampage in a San Ysidro McDonald’s left 21 people dead because she had compassion for the woman’s two young children.

But Kroc's most lasting legacy might in her last rush of charity after she was told she had brain cancer and only a few months to live.

She gave more than $1 billion to the Salvation Army and $225 million to NPR, gifts that transformed the institutions.

Kroc had also wanted to donate to PBS — which similarly does public broadcasting but is an altogether separate entity — but ultimately did not. Why? According to Napoli, PBS never returned her phone call, and time was short.

Joan Kroc died at 75 on this week in 2003. Fifteen years later, she's still thanked on air by NPR every day.

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