This is a transcript from the Launch Yourself Today podcast interview with Fred Hill. When Philadelphia Eagles tight end Fred Hill’s 3-year-old daughter, Kim, was being treated for leukemia in 1974, his life changed. He and his wife, Fran, camped out on hospital benches and sat in cramped waiting rooms during Kim’s three years of treatment. The Hills watched other parents and families of seriously ill children do the same thing. Many of the families had to travel long distances for their children to receive medical treatment and couldn’t afford hotel rooms.
The Hills knew there had to be a solution. Fred rallied the support of his teammates to raise funds. Through Jim Murray, the Eagles’ general manager, the team offered its support to Dr. Audrey Evans, head of the pediatric oncology unit at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Evans dreamed of a comfortable temporary residence for families of children being treated at her hospital.
Jim enlisted Don Tuckerman from the local McDonald’s advertising agency, who with the support of McDonald’s Regional Manager Ed Rensi, launched the St. Patrick’s Day Green Milkshake (dubbed the Shamrock Shake) promotion. Funds raised helped buy an old house located near the hospital, which was opened in 1974 as the first Ronald McDonald House. There are now have more than 365 Ronald McDonald Houses that serve more than 7200 families a night around the world.
Fred, thank you for taking time to hang with us today.
This is great and I’m glad we’re doing it right here at the Ronald House.
It’s an amazing structure. I’ve driven by it before, but I’ve never been in a Ronald McDonald house. I’m blown away.
The only problem with this house is its too small. It’s only 20 bedrooms and they need a lot more. We have a capital campaign that we’re going to do to raise enough for another 24 bedrooms. We’ve just got to raise the money.
People have heard about Ronald McDonald houses and maybe they’ve seen the place to deposit money at a McDonalds or a sign that McDonalds supports the homes, but a lot of people I don’t think know the actual story of how the homes came into existence. Take us back to the late 60’s, early 70’s when you were playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, what happened to your daughter, Kim?
I went to the University of Southern California and was drafted by the Eagles, that was in 1965. Everything was going well, we were young and it was a great experience. We moved to New Jersey, right over the bridge to the stadium in Philadelphia and I was in my fourth year. I was playing behind Mike Ditka and had a really good season but then they traded him away. When they traded him in ’68, the next season I was going to be their tight end. I was so excited. In the fifth pre-season game I ripped out my knee, this was in 1969.
I went home and my wife told me that my daughter Kim was in the hospital. She was there in isolation and they diagnosed her with acute lymphatic leukemia. They had given her only a few months to live. All of a sudden, I have this cast all the way up to the top of my leg and they said my daughter was going to die. We were just devastated. On top of that we were 3000 miles away from home. We were at Cooper’s Hospital, where they diagnosed her and no one could go see her. My wife wouldn’t leave, so they put a little cot by the bed and she was there for a few days, before Kim was transferred her to St. Christopher’s Hospital in Philadelphia.
That’s when the chemotherapy started for three and a half years. We were devastated and it was very, very hard, especially on my wife. I was getting treatment and after that I was back playing again the next year. So, she had to go every single day to drive to the hospital for all kinds of tests. They were hard tests. Bone marrow, spinal taps and then injections every single day with chemotherapy. It was very difficult time in our life.
How did the team rally around you during this time?
They heard about Kim because the diagnosis was 1969 and we used to take her to training camp all the time. She was just this really cute three year old and she was the type that would hug anybody. These guys would come off the practice field all sweaty and she would just jump in their arms and give them a big hug and kiss. When they found out that she was sick, they all felt it. At that time, we got a new owner, his name was Leonard Tose. He called me into the office one day and said to me, “Fred, I know you’re going through a horrible thing here. I will do whatever I can to help your daughter. So, if she needs to be transferred to any place, I’ll pay for it all. But if you want to go back home, I’ll try to work out a trade with the Los Angeles Rams.” We felt like we were getting really good treatment there and we didn’t really want to move. We owned a house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, so we decided to stay in Philadelphia. But they kind of all rallied behind her and they were really supportive.
I know that a fundraiser came into being, but was initiated out of her need for care?
My wife has always tried to help with charities ever since she was in high school. We’ve been together, by the way, since we were six years old. So, all through high school she belonged to charity league and she was always doing different things. She always wanted to do something, we just didn’t know how. Since we were going through such a tragedy, we were really just trying to survive every day. I also have two other children that were younger. So, Fran, my wife is dragging the other two kids to the hospital with Kim each time. Kim was really strong, but when she had to get a bone marrow or a spinal tap, she would just start screaming. It was really, really hard on my wife.
I tried to help out as much as I could. We did a couple little fundraisers, nothing big. One was just a few hundred dollars. This one time, this bartender said to me, “Hey, can you get a couple Eagle players and we’ll give you part of the tab for an hour and all the free beer that you want.” I don’t drink beer, but it was easy to find a couple ball players that did. So, I took them and we raised a few hundred dollars and we gave it to the hospital, but we never came up with anything big until 1972. And in 1972 one of the players’ wives went to buy a fur coat in Haddonfield, New Jersey, her name was Diane Skaggs and she had stayed with Fran in the offseason. At this time, I had retired in 1971.
Why did you retire?
My back was killing me. I was injured a lot and I played seven years. The last game I played was at Yankee stadium and we had an interim coach, his name was Ed Khayat. I actually played with him. I went up to Eddie on the bus and I said, “Coach, this is my last game.” And I went out there, I actually started and I think I caught five or six passes. I went as hard as I could, but because of severe back problems, I walked off the field that day and never played again. With Kim, we had already gone through a couple of years of chemotherapy and I wanted to try to help out more at home too. So, I didn’t miss leaving, but mostly because of the injuries.
Anyway, this lady Diane, she went to Fran and they started planning a fashion show. There was this lady from the Leukemia Society of America that said, “Fred, you could really help us.” So, our first fundraiser was actually for the Leukemia Society of America. This furrier, Herald Winger said to us, “If you can get ten of the Eagle wives to put on a fashion show with my fur coats, I’ll give you a couple thousand dollar fur coat that you can raffle off to your favorite charity.” So, we were thinking the hospital, right?
So, what we did was, we started planning this fashion show, it was mostly the girls and my neighbors. I had this great neighbor; his name was Stan Lane and he was a really good business and insurance man. He kind of took over with my wife, because I wasn’t that type. I was kind of shy then and didn’t talk all that much. They started planning this fashion show and we secured a restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Fran, my wife said, “Why don’t you go and ask Leonard Tose and the ball players?” Remember, I’m not even with the team now, but we knew we could get ten ball players because their wives were in the fashion show. But that’s kind of all we thought we could get.
We were trying to sell the tickets and we didn’t know what we were doing. So, I went to the team and told them what we were doing and they all knew Kim. She was the inspiration. Then I went to Leonard Tose and Leonard says, “Okay, I’ll be there.” To our surprise, the entire team and Leonard Tose showed up. Leonard was the last one to leave and he called Fran and I over and said, “How much did you raise?” We were thrilled, we raised $10,000 for the Leukemia Society for America. We even had a picture of Eddie Khayat, the head coach, Leonard Tose and myself putting those quarters in those little coin boards that the Leukemia Society of America has. Leonard then said, “Fred, this was great. This is one of the greatest things I’ve been involved in. Here’s what I want you to do, I’m going to give you the Eagles. I’m going to give you Vet Stadium. I’m going to give you all the things that I have, all the assets that I have and I want you guys to come back next year and raise ten times this amount,” which would be over $100,000. Back in 1972, that was a lot of money.
Later, my neighbor, Stan said, “Why don’t we drive to New York to the Leukemia Society of America and give them the check?” So, we did, but we really didn’t know where the money went to. It goes to a lot of really good things. You can earmark it for research and this, but on the way back we were thinking, “Wouldn’t it be neat if we could raise $100,000 just to give it to our hospital?” Instead of an abstract thing where you aren’t sure where the money goes, you could actually touch the item that you’re donating to.
So, our doctor, Dr. Larry Neiman, we had been with him for years and years. We went over to talk to him and told him that we might be able to raise over $100,000 and that we wanted to give it to him to buy a piece of equipment for the hospital, St. Christopher’s in South Philly. He said to us, “You know what? The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is really hurting. They don’t have enough money to finish the hematology wing. There’s a doctor over there named Dr. Audrey Evans and I think you should approach her and give the money to the Children’s Hospital.”
So, Stan and I, we went to see Dr. Evans who was the head of Hematology at Children’s Hospital. She’s a sweet lady. She didn’t know anything about the Eagles back then, so we told her that we could possibly raise over $100,000 and we would like to give it to her. She made up a list for us and on the list was to finish the hematology wing at a million dollars. Then there was a lab that she could use and an isolation ward. Down at the bottom of her list, she said, “We need a house close by where the parents can stay. They have no place to stay here. Some of them come 100 miles away and there’s just big hotels that they can’t afford. So, I’d really like to have a little house close by.” When I told Fran this, she could really relate to that. Because she was sitting on a cot next to Kim and she wouldn’t leave. It just made sense.
That’s when we went back to Leonard Tose and after talking to the wives and Stan Lane, we came up with all these ideas. One was to have a fashion show, but this time we’ll have it at the stadium in his suite. It was a brand new stadium, it was built in 1970. And in this suite, you can see the scoreboard and the entire field, so we decided we wanted to host a radio-a-thon. We wanted every ball player to have a phone and we would called them “Bird calls”. So, the idea was, any little kid could call someone like Roman Gabriel or any of their favorite players and actually talk to them and give a donation. And then, as the money came in, it would be posted on the scoreboard.
Everybody wanted to help us in Philadelphia. So, we told Leonard Tose that on Sunday we’d like to pass the hat at the football game. We told him all these things that we wanted to do and he looked at the list and said, “Hey, let’s do the whole thing.” Some people said they didn’t think it was possible to pass the hat at a game, like at church, but he said, “Hey, we’re going to do the whole thing and I’ll sell the tickets.” We had sold the tickets at the first fashion show for $25 a piece but he started calling up Mrs. Firestone and all of his friends and said, “Hey, you have got to buy this ticket. I’m doing a good thing.” He demanded it and he sold all the tickets.
He also got Jim Murray involved, he was the manager of the football team and we even had three fur coats for the guys this time. So, we had three of the football players model these fur coats for us. We ended up having this big function at the stadium and it turned out to be a great success. We raised $100,000 and then that Sunday was the game. We’re thinking, “How are we going to pass this hat?” Jim Murray planned this, but we ended up getting all the Eaglettes and we stood them all around the stadium in their green and white. We had this big trashcan at the end of the aisle and then we had these small cannisters which we could pass around. We made a mistake with these cannisters, but we thought people might throw hot dogs and everything else in there. Philly fans are great, but they’re kind of rugged, so we put a lid on top of the cannister with a slit in it, just to be safe.
So, we were waiting for a big play to happen and we finally got one. I think it was Ben Hawkins, our wide receiver, who caught a 50-yard pass. So that was the time to pass the hat and it was just like at church. We passed it down one aisle all the way to the end and then we took it and dumped it in the big trash can. We’d put the lid back on and passed it down the next row, through the entire stadium. In ten minutes, we got $25,000. But this is where we made the mistake with that stupid lid, because we went down the basement of Vet Stadium and they started dumping the money out from the trashcans. It ended up being a foot high on the floor, but it was all dollars and five dollars and every one had to be crumpled up. You had to crumple it up to get it through that little slot on the cannister lid. So, here we probably had 20,000 bills all crumpled up.
It was funny because Continental Bank wanted to help us out and they brought five coin changers, but we had no coins. It was all dollars and five dollars and somebody put $20 in. It took us a couple of days to undo all this money and count, but it was just this great success. That’s when we formed a corporation. It was a non-profit and Stan Lane and myself named it Eagles Fly for Leukemia. What was great was there were a lot of important people that were in Philadelphia. For example, you would never have an owner that would do this and pass the hat at a football game. Second thing is, you had NFL Films stationed in Philadelphia, so they filmed it all.
Not only that, NFL Films helped us as we were trying to finish off the hematology wing. We had this wide receiver, Herold Carmichael, they would film him in a game catching the ball and then spike it in the end zone. Then they would show his face and he says, “Let’s spike out leukemia.” We also had a middle linebacker named Bill Bergey that was all pro, and they would show him in a game of NFL Films just crushing some defensive guy or offensive running back and then they would show his face and he says, “Let’s crush out leukemia.” So, NFL Films helped us a lot. Plus, as houses went on, they videotaped that too. So, there’s this whole story behind the video.
Another key person was Ed Rinsey. Ed was the same sage as me at that time, we were only 26 years old, but he became the regional manager of McDonalds in Philadelphia. He had heard about Eagles Fly for Leukemia and knew that we were trying to raise money. It was a little bit like the movie Rocky, everybody was getting into it. It was on TV and everything was happening. So, Ed Rinsey decided he wanted to get involved, they also wanted to get a promotion with NFL, so they decided they were going to have this green shake on St. Patrick’s Day for the whole Delaware Valley.
All the McDonalds?
Yeah, in Philadelphia you have Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, but Delaware is hooked right next to you and so is New Jersey. So, they call it the Delaware Valley, but it’s actually three states. So, all the McDonalds in those three states, they had the green shake on St. Patrick’s Day. They all looked at the list and they said, “Okay, if you let us have our promotion, we want Roman Gabriel, a picture of him and we’ll put it in every restaurant. And Bill Bergey, your middle linebacker, we’ll put it in every restaurant too. We’ll have this promotion with you and we will buy that house that Dr. Audrey Evans wants. But, under one condition, you let us call it The Ronald McDonald house.” It was just a little six bedroom house in South Jersey on Spruce Street, very small. Each house has a house manager. So, the very first house manager was Judy Bloor. You can imagine, it’s a row house and they’re all hooked together. There’s only six bedrooms and she lived in that house for many, many years and raised all of her kids in that house and took care of the families that came in.
Fred, you know everybody’s name. I cannot believe how many people’s names you have locked in your mind. This is amazing.
Well, I’ve been doing this for 44 years with Fran, my wife. You know what makes us feel good? The people that volunteer and work at Ronald houses are the nicest people in the world. It just makes you feel good to be around them. They’re just helping these parents and Fran really relates to it, because she went through this tragedy. What was unfortunate was Kim was in remission this entire time, but they felt that they needed to do radiation of the brain because they didn’t know if it was getting to her brainstem. They did this radiation and 20 years later, the kids started coming down with brain tumors. That’s what happened to Kim. But before that happened, I was selling medical supplies here in Southern California with American Hospital, but we opened up the L.A. house. It was kind of neat, because all the first houses revolved around the National Football League. So, you had the Philadelphia Eagles first house, that was 1974. And then 1977 was the Chicago house.
That was the second house?
That was with George Halas of the Chicago Bears and Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds. That was the key house. Then the Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Washington Redskins, the Los Angeles Rams. When they did the ground breaking in 1979, Kim was with all these Ram players and she broke ground. And then in 1980 when it opened, Kim actually cut the ribbon with Ronald and opened the Los Angeles Ronald McDonald House. Eventually McDonalds called us and said, “We’re having trouble at Duke University promoting the Ronald House that they’re building there. Would you and Kim come to Duke in North Carolina and help us promote the house?”
When was this?
Boy, I’m not sure. But I almost said, “No. How could I help? What could I do?” I ended up taking Kim, she was just a little teenager and we flew to North Carolina and we went to the three major cities there. It kind of worked out, because we would go to a radio station and they’d say, “Hey, we have Kim Hill here from Southern California and she was the inspiration for the first house, would you like to interview her because we’re opening up the Duke house in a couple of days.” Then we went to the TV stations and to all the newspapers. Then we flew home. I don’t even know if I was there for the opening. But anyway, it was all over the news and everything.
Another few months went by and they said, “Would you and Kim go to the Tucson house?” And then the Milwaukee house. And then the Fresno House. Then all of a sudden, we were all over. We’d be going to five year reunions and ten year reunions and it just kept going. I did that for 13 years. McDonalds even had us ride on the float in the Rose Parade. That was when the operators talked me into trying to apply for McDonalds. So today, I am actually an owner/operator with McDonalds.
How many locations do you have?
I have three and their all in Rancho Mission Viejo country; Mission Viejo, Ladera Ranch and Rancho Santa Margarita.
Thank you for walking us through that journey. It’s amazing. Take us back to that first home in Philadelphia, what was that like to see that home open and families begin to stay there?
That was 1974 and Kim was in remission, so we finally decided to come back home. They had players there and they opened the house, but it was very small. But it helped out, it was just too small. Six bedrooms, you can imagine. That house is no longer a Ronald McDonald House. Judy Bloor, what an amazing woman, the first manager. What they did, they found another house and it was much larger. We were there for the opening of that house too. In fact, in the video they say, “They did a complete 360 and now they’re back and they opened up the second house.” Which a lot of people think was the first house.
The second house is kind of unique, because it was this 100 year old mansion and the person that built it, on the cornerstones of the building, he had faces of his kids. It was all mahogany inside, which was kept in perfect condition and when you came down the stairs, at the end of the bannister rail was carved the faces of their children. This was a much bigger house. But you know what’s happening with all these houses? They outgrow them and they’re all full. So, they have to keep adding on, adding on, adding on and a lot of people don’t realize this, these houses aren’t owned by McDonalds. McDonalds oversees the houses and they want to make sure they’re run perfect because their name is on it. They provide about 15% of the money but 85% of the money has to be raised in any kind of fundraiser you can think of.
Now this house, the Orange County house is only 20 bedrooms. There’s houses that are huge. The Stanford house for example is 125 bedrooms. But the largest in the world is the Columbus house, which is right by Ohio State University and it has 137 bedrooms. They’re adding 80 more because they’re full. We have the same problem here. Our house is full. Fortunate enough for this house, they bought the lot right next door, which is a parking lot and they’re going to add 24 more bedrooms. It’s going to be 12 to 14 million dollars, so how do they make the money? They do it with fundraisers.
We have a big Walk for Kids and its coming up April 7th, we’ll have between 3,500 to 4,000 walkers. It’s our largest fundraiser. We do the walk for all of our houses and a lot of people don’t realize this but we have six houses here all under one umbrella. We have the L.A. house which was the first house. Then we had the Orange County, which was the second. Then we had Loma Linda, which was the third. Then we had the Pasadena house, the Long Beach house and the Bakersfield house and we also have a camp.
Is each home is a separate entity?
In different places they are, but we put it all under the same umbrella.
In Southern California?
Yeah, because we have the camp, 60-acres in Idyllwild and then we have two family rooms; McDonald Family Rooms. One at CHOC and one at Mission. These are all under the same umbrella, so we have different types of fundraisers. Now the Ronald Room at Mission, a mom could nurse her baby there if it was premature. She’s probably exhausted, she’s tired, she’s hungry. She can go down the end of the hall, she can sleep, she can get food and then go back and see her baby. It basically does the same thing, but it’s even closer because its right in the hospital. There’s only two in Southern California, but there’s over 100 hospitals that have Ronald Rooms. The people here pay $10 a night, if they can afford it.
A family does?
How long can they stay?
They can stay as long as its needed. The people that qualify, it’s kind of on seniority a little bit. If you have a two and three and four year old and if there’s room, they would probably get the room first, rather than an 18 year old. Because he’s more mature and the little ones really need it. But they don’t turn anybody away. At this house, since its over 100% occupied, they’ll send them to hotels. Last year they spent $90,000 on hotels. So, if you’re running a hotel and you’re getting very little money from the customer, what you have to do is every kind of fundraiser you can think of.
Now when I said you have all of these under the same umbrella of McDonalds Corp, say we have a big golf tournament. The golf tournament would be for all six houses, the two family rooms and the camp. But then each individual house has to have their own fundraisers. Now we have a person, his name is Vince Bryson and he is the CEO of all six houses under our umbrella. But each house has their own house manager and Noel is here and he is fantastic.
So, thinking fundraisers, but what kind of fundraisers? Back East, they had a quilting club and they made quilts for all the Ronald Houses. They then took pictures of the quilts, came out with a book about how they made them, sold the books and gave the money to the Ronald House. There’s been rodeos. There’s been bass fishing tournaments. There’s been golf tournaments all over the place. We have a walk here and this Walk for Kids is tremendous, but it’s not only here. We’ll have a walk at Los Angeles, Long Beach, Loma Linda, all on the same day. Our walk is for our house and we raised over $300,000 last year. We form teams and our team was Team Kim Hill and we’re the Eagles. We have these green and white t-shirts with 86 on the back because that was my number. I’m proud that last year we raised more money than any other team, we raised $32,000. We’re going to have a hard time trying to beat that record.
So, you call these Ronald McDonald houses, but when I walked in, it’s like a hotel. It feels like a really, really nice homey hotel. It feels like a home, but it’s a big place. I’ve always thought Ronald McDonald houses were small houses. These places are huge.
Well, this is actually very small. This is only 20 bedrooms. And you know what? They’re all different. To give you an idea, there is 366 Ronald Houses and almost going on 50 countries all over the world. We’ve only been to three other countries. We went to two of the houses in Canada. We went to about five or six houses in Germany. Actually, Germany now has 21, but at that time they were opening up their 18th house and it was in Berlin. We went to the Netherlands because Amsterdam was the very first house in Europe and they just had their 30th Anniversary. We also went to Rome, and that was kind of neat because we went to two of the houses in Rome, but one of them was on the Mediterranean. They have a room there and they call it “The Pope Paul Room”, because years ago, he used to go there to swim. It’s a very humble room. It has a little dinky bed and one little desk. They have a picture on their front of Pope Paul holding a little child and then our little logo next to it. They just keep it that way, no one goes into that room. But all the other rooms are for the Ronald House.
Wow, so when somebody goes to a Ronald McDonald House to stay, they contact the local home? What’s the process?
They take in people from all the surrounding hospitals here. Not only CHOC, but there’s other Children’s Hospitals around. Usually they have a social worker and they try to get them into the Ronald House. When Fran and I were young, there were no social workers or no one to help you. We had about a 45 minute drive every single day to the hospital, but a lot of people, they come from 100 miles away. So, there’s no place at all.
The hospital refers them?
The hospital refers them; the social worker will help and then they call over and they try to get enough room. If they can’t, they’ll arrange it at one of the hotels. Hopefully there’s not a big event going on where all the hotels are full. But that’s one of the problems.
One of the things you mentioned was there aren’t a lot of kids around, because the kids are actually in the hospital. It might be siblings here.
Sometimes it’s a little bit different than that. For example, like Kim and a lot of cancer patients, you can go home every day. So, if it’s a cancer patient, they can come and stay with their mom and dad right here and then go over and get all their treatments and then come back. So, you have some kids that stay here and then there’s some that are so sick that they’re in the hospital.
But you can just imagine, I know that you have a lot of mom’s out there that listen to your program, just imagine you’re devastated and you find out that your daughter or son has a terrible disease and they could pass away at any time. Say you’re 100 miles from the hospital. You don’t know where to stay. You don’t know where to get food. You’re exhausted, you’re worried, you’re depressed. What this house does, it takes those worries away from you. You don’t have to worry about where you are going to stay, because you can stay right here. You don’t have to worry about food, because we have 800 volunteers in this little 20-bedroom house. They come and make breakfast. Different restaurants, they’ll come with all their chefs – about four or five of them and they’ll make dinner for all the people at night. They sign up eight months in advance to do that. They provide breakfast, lunch, dinner. They have all kinds of refrigerators there where you can put your food if you have special food that you need.
What they try to do is get that mom into the kitchen and into the dining room area with other moms that are going through the same thing. Because it really helps to be able to talk to another mom that has the same type of problem. So, you have a little bit of a social thing going there. You can talk about your kid, rather than being in a room all by yourself at a hotel. The hospital is right down the street here, it’s just a block away. But say you needed a ride, we’ve got volunteers, we’ll take you over. So, you don’t have to worry about food. You don’t have to worry about a place to stay. You don’t have to worry about the cost. It just keeps the family together. My wife always says, “To a little kid, the most important thing is that her mom and dad is right there with them.” They’re proving this now, that they’re finding out that the healing rate when you have that close family right there going through the entire thing, it really helps the child.
That’s amazing. It didn’t even dawn on me, the community aspect of the home. It’s not only a safe haven in evenings or daytimes for the family, but the opportunity for the families to connect with one another.
I’ll give you a perfect example. We opened up the L.A. house, we opened up the Orange County house and all of a sudden Kim came down with a brain tumor the size of a softball.
When was this?
March of ’91. She was working at McDonalds and she was having a hard time counting the money. We got a CAT scan at Mission hospital and they said, “Oh my God. She’s got a tumor. Two of them. One the size of a softball on the side of her head, one the size of a golf ball on the front of her head.” So, they’re going to have to take half her skull off to take these things out. We didn’t know where to have the operation. We didn’t know what surgeon we could use. So, we just finally decided we were going to do it here at St. Joe’s. We got the surgeon and Kim says, “Do you think we could stay at the Orange County house?” So now, 20 years later, we’re staying at the house that she helped open.
Fran is a school teacher and she has all the mother helpers. She taught kindergarten. So, she’s in the house and one of her mother helpers and the daughter that Fran taught as a kindergartner, she was going through a horrible thing at the same time. She had to go through a bone marrow transplant. So here are these two moms, Fran and this mother helper that helped out in her class, they were together for that whole week.
We were shattered. Can you imagine your daughter is going to have half her skull removed? Unfortunately, it came back the next year and so this next time we stayed at the L.A. Ronald McDonald House, which she helped open also. When it came back a third time, we stayed in L.A. again. It was very difficult. She passed away eight years ago and it was very hard.
You went through a lot with her.
It was so hard, especially on my wife. I don’t know how she did it. She loved teaching and she took a leave of absence. It took 20 years before she passed away. She lost the use of her legs and her arms and she went blind and gained 100 pounds. But you know what, my wife was right there with her all the time and it really helped. Kim was not really depressed, she always thought she’d get better. I think it was so comforting for my wife to be right next to her.
I know that she had a strong faith.
Yeah, a really strong faith. After a certain while, she was having a lot of seizures and stuff, so we actually had to put her in a nursing home several years later. Fran was there every day. We got a handicap van and she wanted to go to a Saddleback Church every Sunday. At that time, she could see, so we took her to movies, took her out to eat. I’ll never forget, she always wanted Starbucks coffee and she wanted four Splenda. I said, “Nobody has four Splenda.” So, I would put two of them in and then she would sip it and say, “Nope, you didn’t put enough Splenda in.” She would know, but she loved going to Saddleback Church. We did that for many, many years.
What a legacy she has.
She felt really good about that. When she was at Capo Valley High School, NBC Today wanted to do a special on our family. She was just a little teenager and she was in the choir there. We were going to open up the Fresno Ronald McDonald House, so they came. The school was really surprised because all of a sudden NBC Today is coming to Capo Valley High School and the girls’ choir she was in was called Tapestry, it was about 20 girls. They were really good, they could really sing. So, it starts off with Kim singing at Capo Valley High School. Then they came to our house and Kim loved to ride horses, so we bought a house on a dirt road in San Juan Capistrano and Kim had a horse. They showed her riding her horse and they say, “That’s not the only thing Kim does,” and then it showed her going to the Fresno Ronald McDonald House. And they interviewed her there and they use this a lot, she said, “I didn’t enjoy being sick, but in a way I’m kind of glad I did get sick. Because through all my suffering, a great thing came from it.” She was so proud of that video. She used to show it to everybody.
That’s powerful. That’s an amazing legacy.
Yeah, McDonalds had an ad slick there for a while. It started with one and that was Kim. And then they had another ad slick and they said, “This house was built by a three year old girl.” So, she was definitely the inspiration for the first house.
I want us to wrap up with kind of an opportunity for people to take action. I always say, you can’t do everything, but you can do something. What are some ways that people can get involved in the Ronald McDonald houses in their areas? There’s over 300 around the world, how can people help out?
They always need volunteers and that really helps out. It’s kind of a social thing and we see it all over the world actually. They get to meet other people that do the same thing. And volunteers are the nicest people, because they do it not to get anything in return except trying to help somebody and that gives them a good feeling. So, then they’re around a whole bunch of people like that. They become friends and they help the house and there’s just a number of things that they can do at the house. So, volunteerism is really important.
But you’ve got to remember, they’ve got to raise 85% of all the money. So, there’s all kinds of fundraisers. If there’s any golfers out there, we have the golf tournaments. They can help out with this walk. And this year, and I hope it comes true because I’ve been telling everybody I’m going to try to get the USC marching band to lead us off. Not the entire band, but I think there’s about 20 of them and it sounds like the entire band. I haven’t got it all the way yet, but supposedly this guy said that its going to be 99% sure that this is going to happen and that would be great if I could do that. I’ve been trying to do that for years.
The Angels have really helped us out. Mike Scioscia, for the last three years, he’s handed out all the prizes and stuff that go on. He kind of leads us off and he always has a game that day, but he’s gone now because after 19 years, he’s no longer the Angel manager. We get a lot of help from outside organizations too. For example, Tempur-Pedic, the bed company, they provide all the beds for no charge for all the houses of the world. La-Z-Boy Furniture, they provide the furniture for all the houses. ADPi, the sorority, many years ago, probably 40 years, they chose the Ronald McDonald House as their philanthropy. And then Coca-Cola and some of the other ones. So, we do get help that way.
We also have great operators. They’re going to be selling their rooms off at $50,000. If you want your plaque on the door, then you provide the money for this room. These Southern Cal operators are all trying to buy all the rooms up, so that really helps too. But there’s a tremendous amount of money that has to be raised. Just for example, with our 20 bedroom house, the budget is over $2 million. And now we’re going to have more than double the size of, so we’re talking about $3 or $4 million. McDonalds provides 15%, so we really need all the help we can. There’s many, many fundraisers. They advertise it at the houses, but the word gets around too.
I saw a beautiful opportunity on the website was for a child to turn their birthday into a fundraiser. To be able to take up a collection or in some way create awareness of the Ronald McDonald House for their birthday. Kids always like to get involved. I think one of the things that I want to draw people’s attention back to is the volunteerism, because they can come in either as an individual and volunteer, or they can bring their group and make a meal or baked goods. Some light housekeeping even.
Yes, in fact in the Columbus house, which is that huge house. It was immaculate and they have four guys that volunteer and clean that entire place. So that was amazing. Say, they need rides over to the hospital. They have a van here, but that helps too. There’s many things that are needed at the house and to volunteer would be great, plus they would meet all these other nice volunteers.
Which you say are the nicest people in the world.
They are. It’s so funny because they treat my wife like a queen. We went over to Germany and we went to their house and they couldn’t wait until we got there. They brought all their volunteers and everybody sat down. You know, they have all kinds of breads over there and everything, they were giving us all kinds of food and stuff. They just wanted to talk to Fran.
There’s also a worldwide convention every two years and over a thousand people show up. McDonalds puts it on, it’s in Chicago. They have classes on how to handle deaths in the house. How to get volunteers. How to fundraise. All the things that are needed. So, all the house managers and CEO’s of the different groups, they all come and gather. And it’s so much fun for us, because they’re from all over the world; Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, every place.
Since Kim died eight years ago, for that last eight years, we’ve given out the Kim Hill Award to the outstanding Ronald McDonald House. You know who won it first? Taiwan. Second was Turkey. The next two years later, Taiwan again. There’s two houses in Taiwan. And this last year, Toronto in Canada received it. We haven’t yet given it to a house in the United States, but it’s kind of fun for us because this last year, the Toronto house, McDonalds gave them $50,000 for winning. There were also ten runners up. They picked ten and then the people vote on who would win. So, they doubled the amount last year and I think each of those houses got $20,000. McDonalds is tremendous and they help out so much, but we’ve got the greatest operators here in Southern California.
Operators is a term for?
Those who own a McDonalds?
Yeah, and basically, they put on most of the fundraisers. We had a woman, Patty Widdicombe and her mom when she was still alive, they had this big high tea for many, many years. It got all the women together and a few guys, but they did the high tea and raised lots of money. The golf tournaments, they always get involved in that and help out. So, they get their wives and the operators and some of them are on our board and they really help in Southern California.
Fred, I’ve got a very serious question to ask you.
I grew up in the 70’s and I had multiple birthdays at McDonalds with Ronald McDonald showing up. What has happened to this tradition? I see no birthday parties at McDonalds. I see no Ronald McDonald ever, what’s going on Fred?
You know, I was sad about that too. They let a lot of the Ronald’s go. For special events, every once and awhile you’ll see a Ronald McDonald. I’m surprised at it and I think a lot of McDonald operators are too. I’m not sure. As far as birthday parties, it’s hard to put on a birthday party because we are so busy. Our average check is very small. So, to give you an idea, one transaction could be a family of four. That’s one transaction. Each one of my stores does over 500,000 transactions per year. So, you’re talking about 1.5 million transactions. We don’t have really the room to do a birthday party, but some of them still do and that’s still a possibility.
I’m thinking about it doing it at my Ladera Ranch store. We’re going to totally remodel it and I have this huge playland and I’m putting in a special table there and many, many games. So, we will probably do the birthday parties. They do have these take-home birthday parties though. Where you could basically come and get inexpensive food and the games and Happy Meal toys and take it home and have the party at your house. It’s really up to each individual operator. So, you have some that still do the parties, so it’s not like we’re excluding parties, it’s just up to the operator. I’ll probably do it at Ladera. But getting back to your question on Ronald, I’ve seen one a couple of times.
Do you think it’s because culturally people are more scared of clowns these days?
You know what? The internet in some ways is really good, but in a lot of ways its bad. And there’s a lot of bad things on the internet, especially with clowns. So, I think that had a big reason why they started doing it. They make up stuff about Ronald McDonald that are not even accurate and show these horrible things on the internet. So maybe that’s why they kind of transitioned out of it.
Well, I like Ronald.
I do too.
You should get a permanent Ronald. You could just have a full-time Ronald rotate from store to store.
Well, the highest award you can get with McDonalds is the Ronald McDonalds Award. It’s an outstanding award and just few operators get it and they only give one out per year, per region. So, it’s still the Ronald McDonald Award. And it’s still the Ronald McDonald House.
Fred, thank you so much for sharing your story and your daughter and your life with us. I’m inspired. I really am. My grandmother, when she was alive, she loved Ronald McDonald Houses. I think it’s because of Ray Kroc and the San Diego Padres.
He did own the San Diego Padres.
She was a big fan of the San Diego Padres, so on multiple occasions I bought or I donated money to Ronald McDonald House in her name for her birthday. That’s the connection that I have for Ronald McDonald House, but it’s such an honor to meet you and it’s an honor to be in this home. I’m really excited for people to learn more about it.
Let me tell you about Ray Kroc. Ray Kroc always said to his operators, “You need to give back to the community that is so good to you.” That was his philosophy. When he passed away, Joan Kroc took over that. Now some people out there saw The Founder and they didn’t make Ray look too good on The Founder, but this guy was incredible. To give you an idea, he made millions of dollars and Mrs. Kroc was the biggest donor to the Ronald McDonald House. Many years ago, there was 127 Ronald McDonald Houses in the United States and in Texas, they got 12 houses right away. So, they ended up having their own convention in Corpus Christi, Texas, which was a very small house. They ended up receiving this letter from Mrs. Kroc, because she found out that the houses in the United States were having trouble with their cleaning and operational supplies. She gave every house in the United States $500,000 in stock under two conditions; you don’t tell anybody because you just got $500,000 and it might hurt your fundraising. And two, you can sell the stock, but you need to leave it in an interest bearing account and use that to help out. So, without McDonalds knowing it, she gave away $65 million dollars overnight. Beyond that, she was still the biggest donor ever to the Ronald McDonald House.