The Bellevue University Archives are home to a small collection of quite unique documents, possibly the only ones of their type that are available for public viewing in the world. They are the work of Thomas Dolly, a one-time student at Bellevue University, and are the result of ten years’ worth of correspondence with Richard (Dick) McDonald, who, with his brother Maurice (Mac) developed and opened the first McDonald’s restaurant, and whose detail-oriented approach to fast-food restaurant design arguably still shapes the fast-food industry today.
Most of these documents consist of actual letters between Dolly and McDonald. Despite these interesting glimpses into McDonald’s personality, the most exciting document in this collection is a lengthy manuscript that Dolly wrote titled Pure Americana: The Founding of McDonald’s. In this manuscript Dolly compiled his ten years’ worth of contact with McDonald into a cohesive history of the McDonald’s restaurant chain, as told by Dick McDonald himself.
What makes this document fascinating is how much it diverges from the established narrative set forth by Ray Kroc, who for many years was thought of as being the proper founder of the internationally famous restaurants. While his sharp business sense and innovative accomplishments in franchise management are undeniable, Pure Americana tells a very different story than that which Kroc wrote in his 1977 book Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s. Dolly and McDonald, for starters, give credit where credit is due and emphasize the contributions of less well-known businessman Harry Sonneborn and businesswoman June Martino, painting them as the primary reasons McDonald’s became the massive business success that it was. Additionally, Dolly offers a compelling case for the design and operation of modern McDonald’s restaurants being owed entirely to the McDonald brothers and their close-knit team of associates and employees, and he laments how the intense focus and drive for perfection that the McDonald’s brought to their original restaurant and the first franchised locations that followed thereafter was diluted by Kroc’s attempts at expanding the menu and putting his own personal stamp on some processes. He also disapprovingly writes about how in later years Kroc took credit for many of the assembly-line innovations that the McDonald’s (and previous fast-food entrepreneurs, like Walt Anderson of White Castle) outright invented.
Most importantly, this manuscript offers a concise lesson in the importance of perspective. Widely praised as a business and marketing hero during his lifetime (due in no small part to his skilled self-promotion), in recent years Kroc’s largely positive reputation has begun to shift, as is evidenced by the timely 2016 film The Founder, (in the library soon) directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Michael Keaton as Kroc, in which he is portrayed as a darkly opportunistic anti-hero. The narrative offered by Pure Americana is very different from the narrative offered by both The Founder and Grinding It Out. It is no less biased, but is more valuable, given that it is told from an insider point-of-view that has not received much, if any, pop culture exposure. Dolly himself inserts a lot of his own personality into the document, and seems to hold a very low opinion of Kroc, whereas McDonald, despite having every reason to hate the man, is far gentler in his assessment, and speaks fondly of times that the two shared.
Pure Americana: The Founding of McDonald’s can be read in its entirety on the Bellevue University Digital Archives at https://tinyurl.com/dollymcdonald. Other items from Thomas Dolly’s collection can be viewed upon request in person at the Bellevue University Library, or, for a fee, physical or digital copies can be provided to interested persons by contacting email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally posted in the Freeman/Lozier Library’s quarterly newsletter, More Than Books, V. 20 No. 3, Summer 2017.